Big Imprints

Jason Cook and then Andy Hartmann have cast a giant shadow over the fullback position at Ole Miss the last four years or so, but Rebel Fullback E.J. Epperson - a converted tight end - feels he can cover the void. Read about it inside.

A lot of Rebel fans have talked about filling different voids left by graduation from the 2009 football team.

Who's going to take Dexter's place? Shay? John Jerry? Jevan? Trahan? And so on. . .

. . . but a critical replacement situation to the Ole Miss coaches - the guys who call the shots - revolves around the fullback position, where Andy Hartmann, who took over successfully for Jason Cook, is now gone.

"We were kind of spoiled with Jason and then Andy," said Rebel Coach Houston Nutt. "We came in here and had two veteran guys who were ready to roll in the past two years.

"Now, we are looking at playing younger guys and our leader at this time started out at tight end in his college career."

Nutt is referring to none other than Elijah Jamark "E.J." Epperson, a 6-3, (now) 255-pounder who spent most of last season as an understudy to Hartmann, but filled in nicely for Andy in the Cotton Bowl when the senior had to sit out the Dallas extravaganza due to injury.

In spring training, E.J., who always seems to be in good humor and has a wide smile on his face, was elevated to the top spot.

E.J. Epperson

The sophomore had the same situation as several other members of the Reb offense - not a lot of experience, thrust into the spotlight and going against a seasoned defense every day in spring practice.

"E.J. was going through the same thing as Nathan Stanley, A.J. Hawkins, Alex Washington and a few more," Nutt explained. "It was rough at first, but he got a better day by day."

Epperson, essentially, had to pay his dues.

"My goal in spring was to get, and to stay, consistent. I needed to show the coaches that I am physical enough and would give it up for my teammates while doing my job effectively," said E.J. "By the end of spring, I was happy. Coach (Derrick) Nix pushed me hard enough to keep going and I progressed."

Nix had stated heading into spring training that Epperson had "all the tools," but he was going to have to show the every-play physicality that Cook and Hartmann displayed during their careers.

"Coach Nix and Coach Nutt both challenged me. They asked me if I could be physical 8-10 straight plays driving down the field against Alabama," E.J. recalled. "I started working some with Jason (Cook) and he was giving me all the pointers of staying low, running my feet, staying on track, knowing my assignments and being physical.

"I feel I went a long way to reaching the level they want me at."

There's also another side to the fullback position - the mental aspect.

In the Rebel offensive system, the fullback has to be the clean-up guy, for lack of a better term.

For instance, if someone up front misses a block, the fullback has to quickly analyze the situation, shift from his own responsibilities and clean up the situation before it blows a play up, something both Cook and Hartmann gained praise from the coaches for doing effectively.

"The fullback is the ultimate adjuster. My assignment might be the middle linebacker, but if I catch someone else breaking free before I get to the linebacker, I have to automatically draw to that guy who is free," he explained. "You have to be on your toes and be prepared to adjust at all times because you never know what is going to happen during a particular play.

"I'm getting better at that. I want to be the clean-up guy, the adjuster, and I will work at that until it becomes second nature."

In the offseason, Epperson is trying to get stronger in the upper body.

E.J. Epperson

"My lower body is strong, but I need to be stronger in my arms and upper body," he noted. "I'm also working on my footwork."

He'd also like to gain a little more good weight.

"I think I can hold 260-265 - that's my goal - and I think I can hold that without hurting my movement," Epperson added. "The added strength and weight I intend to add will help me at the point of attack."

During spring training, with new Co-Offensive Coordinator Dave Rader, the RBs and FBs were used a bit more in the passing game, something that excites all the backs, including E.J.

"I'm not selfish. I don't care if I have the ball or not, but it was pretty nice to get it every once in a while," he smiled. "Coach Rader got us more involved and it helped my confidence.

"We don't have Dexter and Shay any more so everyone has to chip in to take up the slack with the ball. I expect us to spread the ball out more this year due to our personnel. Anticipating that, I have worked hard on my hands and have improved them."

Epperson feels "pretty good" about where the offense ended last spring after getting whipped in the early going by the veteran defense, but he knows there is more work to do.

"The turning point was after we had gotten beaten the first few days by the defense and Coach Nutt called a meeting. He challenged us to keep getting after it and not give in, that things would start turning in our favor," E.J. said.

"Sure enough, we started getting a little bit of better. That defense is tough, man, real tough, but we started getting a little chemistry and took steps toward being a band of brothers. We got to where we could hold our own most of the time.

"We know they are going to be good and for us to start challenging them some at the end of spring, that gives us confidence. Once we started getting the little things down and gained some swagger after getting whipped for several practices, we did some good things and started making some plays, but we know we have to gain more consistency in the offseason, in August and the early part of next season. We also learned we have to play as a cohesive unit - it takes all 11."

While this offering is about Epperson, he understands he has competition at the fullback position in the form of H.R. Greer, Derrick Davis, Rodney Steen, Justin Bigham, Tyler King and newcomer Martez Eastland, in no particular order.

"Those guys are tough to compete with because they work hard and want my job. H.R. is working as hard as anyone in the offseason. They know they will be needed and I want them to challenge me every day," he closed. "You never know when your number will be called so I try to push them and I know they push me.

"I'm going to do my job and they are going to do theirs. I can tell by the way we all work. Martez is kind of quiet, but he works hard and I know he'll do a good job in time. He looks strong and is willing to work. That's a good start."

E.J. Epperson has the daunting assignment to take over for a pair of successful veterans as a mere sophomore.

He's bracing and preparing for the challenge.

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