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(All information as of July 1, 2005)
COACH AND PROGRAM
Just two days remained until Mississippi's annual spring football game and new coach Ed Orgeron was pacing around the statue that stands between the south end zone of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium and the Rebels' sparkling new indoor practice facility.
"I'm learning the fight song," Orgeron said. "We're gonna sing it in the locker room."
Winning the Grove Bowl at Mississippi is a sure thing. Winning the other games on the Rebels' schedule isn't, but don't bother telling Orgeron. The Louisiana native and former Southern California defensive line coach/recruiting coordinator has been overcoming long odds for much of his life and he doesn't plan to stop now.
"Most people that know me know that I wouldn't have listened to them anyway," Orgeron said.
Orgeron was hired at Mississippi on Dec. 16, about two weeks after the school's administration decided to fire David Cutcliffe after a 4-7 season, but just a year removed from a 10-3 mark. Orgeron, 43, worked at his new job for about a week before returning to Los Angeles to help the Trojans fine-tune their final preparations for the national championship game against Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl in Miami.
Two days after the Trojans whipped the Sooners to claim a second consecutive national title, Orgeron was back in Oxford. Things haven't been the same since.
"I guess you could say it's not as laid back," Mississippi quarterback Robert Lane said. "There's way more intensity from the time you walk in the door until the time that you leave. You're always moving, whether it's on the practice field or going to meetings. Even in the meeting room, it's high intensity. People are moving around and hollering and screaming. That's the main thing that's different and I think it's a good thing."
"Everything's been different," wide receiver Matt Pierce said. "From the moment we walk in the building, the tempo is double time. Everything is full-speed. He wants us loud and energetic, which is kind of a breath of fresh air. We're not used to that. Everything used to be kind of low-key, but it's exciting. It's going to be a good season."
The transition from Cutcliffe to Orgeron hasn't been seamless. Two of Orgeron's assistants have been released from their duties after alcohol-related arrests. Linebackers coach Charlie Camp was arrested and charged with DUI during a January recruiting weekend. Defensive line coach Joe Cullen was arrested and charged with public drunkenness in March.
Those incidents received more attention than they might otherwise have because of problems in Orgeron's past.
Orgeron's life has always revolved around sports. Starting at an early age, the Larose, La., native knew he either wanted to coach or play football for a living. His father, Ed Orgeron Sr., and his younger brother Steve would join Ed Jr., most afternoons after Ed Sr., came home from his job at the Lafourche Telephone Company.
All of that practice paid off. Ed Orgeron Jr. and future Saints and Falcons quarterback Bobby Hebert helped lead South Lafourche High School to a state championship during Orgeron's junior year. One year later, Orgeron signed a football scholarship at LSU.
The Tigers saw Orgeron as a center. Orgeron wanted to play defense. That difference, combined with a case of homesickness, led to Orgeron's decision to leave LSU and return home, where his father got him a job at the telephone company.
Hebert was playing at Northwestern State in Natchitoches, La., and it took very little convincing to get Orgeron to give the Demons a chance. Within a year, Orgeron was a starting defensive lineman.
As a senior under defensive coordinator John Thompson -- now the co-defensive coordinator for Steve Spurrier at South Carolina -- Orgeron accumulated 59 tackles and earned a tryout with the Memphis Showboats of the United States Football League. The tryout was unsuccessful. On the way home, Orgeron decided what he wanted to do next.
"I started [coaching] the next day," Orgeron said.
Orgeron started out as a graduate assistant at his alma mater. Because of financial constraints, the Demons could afford only one graduate assistant. That meant more coaching responsibilities for Orgeron, and he made the most of the opportunity.
A year later, Orgeron was hired as an assistant at McNeese (La.) State, and then in 1986, he was hired as the strength coach at the University of Arkansas.
"That was my first Division I job and I learned a lot there," Orgeron said. "I took a lot of the work ethic that I learned at Arkansas to Miami. But to be at Miami at that time was excellent. I learned a lot of football."
Orgeron's first job at Miami was as a graduate assistant in 1988. There, he worked with Jimmy Johnson, Dave Wannstedt, Butch Davis, Dave Campo and Tommy Tuberville, among others. One year after Orgeron arrived in south Florida, Johnson left to take over as the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Dennis Erickson replaced Johnson and hired Orgeron.
In four years as the Hurricanes' defensive line coach, Orgeron was a part of two national championship teams. However, off-the-field problems would derail his phenomenal success.
On May 8, 1991, a woman in Florida's Dade County was granted a permanent injunction of protection against repeat violence from Orgeron. Orgeron was prohibited from having any contact, direct or indirect, from her. Orgeron was also "restrained and enjoined from committing any act of domestic violence, to wit: assault, battery, or sexual battery" against her. Orgeron was ordered to complete a 26-week program on domestic violence and on July 20, 1992, the restraining order was terminated.
In 1992, Orgeron was arrested after a fight with the bar manager of a Baton Rouge, La., establishment. The police report said Orgeron was "highly intoxicated," and Orgeron was charged with second-degree battery, failure to leave the premises and misrepresentation during booking. At the request of the bar manager, all of the charges were eventually dropped. However, Miami placed Orgeron on athletic department probation and after a three-month leave of absence, Orgeron resigned on July 15, 1992.
Emotionally shattered, Orgeron returned to Northwestern State, where he volunteered to work with the Demons' defensive linemen. However, there was resistance in Natchitoches and it wasn't long before Orgeron left to go back to Larose.
At home, Orgeron lived with his brother and leaned on his father.
"He was the guy, you know, I'd sit down on the swing, I'd get back to my roots and there were some days that were tough," Orgeron said. "He'd say, 'I don't want to see you hang your head. You're going to get back.' And he'd say, 'Let me tell you something. When you get back, it's going to get even better.' "
Slowly, things did get better. In March 1994, Orgeron was invited to work as a volunteer coach at Nicholls State in nearby Thibodeaux. Each day, Orgeron borrowed his mother's car, made the commute and energetically did his part with the Colonels' defensive linemen. The hard work paid off.
Three years after resigning from Miami, Orgeron was back in Division I coaching at Syracuse. Since starting out with the Orangemen in 1995, Orgeron's life -- professionally and personally -- has taken off.
"I knew one day I'd work my way back up the ladder," Orgeron said. "There were steps I took up the ladder and I took them one at a time. The biggest thing I had to do was straighten out some things in my personal life. Those were the things that were standing in my way. I had an opportunity to do that and ever since then things have been fine."
Orgeron met his wife, Kelly, on a blind date and married her soon thereafter. The couple has three children. After three seasons at Syracuse, Orgeron joined Paul Hackett's staff at USC. Three seasons later, Hackett was fired. While the rest of Hackett's staff searched for coaching jobs elsewhere, Orgeron kept recruiting for the Trojans. It turned out to be one of the smartest moves he ever made.
"I knew SC was a special place," Orgeron said. "I knew with the right combination of people and the right coaching staff, it would take off. So when coach Hackett left, I talked to some people and I said, `You know what, I'd hate to see a new coaching staff come in here and do what we just did and not be a part of it.' I went out and recruited every day.
"At the time, during the transition, I was always thought of as a guy people wanted to keep around at SC. The athletic director never told me face-to-face that I had a job but they told me to keep on working and you'll be fine. I wanted to stay at USC. I'd been at Miami when we won championships and I thought we could do the same thing at USC. I just didn't want to leave."
Pete Carroll eventually landed the USC job and one of his first moves was to retain Orgeron. Carroll made Orgeron his recruiting coordinator in 2001 and for three straight years, the Trojans had one of the top five recruiting classes in the nation, including the No. 1-ranked class in 2003 and 2004. In 2003, after Orgeron rebuffed advances from the NFL, Carroll made Orgeron his assistant head coach and began tutoring him to one day become a college head coach.
"Every day, I was involved," Orgeron said. "I was the assistant coach in charge of recruiting. I was the defensive coordinator when he left. I was in charge of academics. I basically helped him run the program."
When it became obvious Cutcliffe's days at Mississippi were numbered, Orgeron set his sights on the job. He wanted to return to the South and he had always coveted a chance to coach in the Southeastern Conference.
"I just felt I was a natural for it," Orgeron said.
There are and were conflicting reports, but Mississippi officials and/or representatives targeted and/or spoke to a group of coaches that included Erickson, Bobby Petrino, Ron Zook, Tyrone Willingham, Randy Shannon and Orgeron. Orgeron interviewed with Mississippi officials in Dallas, returned to Los Angeles and waited a week.
"When I walked away from Dallas, I felt really good about my chances of getting the job here," Orgeron said. "I knew I did my best on the interview. There were some other situations that came up but I just believed I did my best and I let the results come. But I wanted the job. I definitely wanted the job."
Orgeron did get the job, and he's made his presence felt in Oxford. He opened practices to the public, brought energy to a program that was sorely lacking in that category, scrapped the unsuccessful 4-2-5 defense in favor of a more conventional 4-3 scheme, invigorated the program's recruiting efforts and promised quick results.
"I think the young men have adapted really well," Orgeron said. "Most of the guys I hired on the coaching staff are new and they knew we'd be a high-energy program with a lot of enthusiasm and always on the go. The players seem to have taken to it well and like it. Our practices are very upbeat and physical."
"Coach O has taught us how to play the game fast," quarterback Micheal Spurlock said. "There's only one speed around here and that's full speed. As long as we're competing and the best people are on the field, that's what suits me. … I'm a newborn baby. I'm just going out and having fun. We have a new coaching staff. Everybody has a new lease on life. … Coach O always tells us that the lineup is etched in sand and it can easily be erased. You have to push every day. You can't win it today. You can't win it tomorrow. Every day, you have to be consistent about what you're doing and execute."
"It feels like I'm rejuvenated," wide receiver Larry Kendrick said.
All of the optimism in the world won't overcome a lack of personnel. The Rebels lost to the likes of Memphis and Wyoming last season and won just three SEC games. Mississippi opens the 2005 season on Labor Day at Memphis in a game that will be televised nationally by ESPN2. A loss to the Tigers would be the Rebels' third in a row and make a winning season difficult to accomplish. For his part, Orgeron said he intends to win and win soon.
"I haven't put a timetable on it," Orgeron said. "I hope it doesn't take very long. I'm not looking for it to take very long. I'm really not. I want my team to be good and I want it to be good now. How are we going to do that? I'll have to wait until the season but I really feel we've come a ways and I have every intention of being good now."
It took Micheal Spurlock (5-11, 200) all of two weeks to find out that replacing Eli Manning was even more difficult than anyone thought.
Spurlock was -- how to say this? -- horrible in season-opening losses to Memphis and Alabama. His struggles played a huge role in the fan base's loss of confidence in Cutcliffe and eventually led to a three-headed quarterback for the balance of the season with Spurlock sharing time with junior Ethan Flatt (6-6, 218) and sophomore Robert Lane (6-3, 225). All three quarterbacks are back for another shot at it, though once again, it appears Spurlock is going to open the campaign as the starter.
"The play of Micheal Spurlock has been really, really encouraging,"
Orgeron said. "Especially in the last week [of spring practice], he's taken a grasp of the offense."
Still, Spurlock's hold on the starting position is extremely tenuous. Orgeron has said the athletic senior from Indianola, Miss., will definitely be on the field when the Rebels open the season but he isn't prepared to promise him the quarterback job.
"We have [freshman] Billy Tapp coming in," Orgeron said. "We need to give him a chance. I told all the freshmen we'd give them a chance to compete for a starting position. I'm going to hold that open for him. We need to give Robert a little more of a chance because he was coming on in the spring."
Lane, a former Parade All-American from Monroe, La., was the Rebels' second-leading rusher last season but struggled with the passing game, completing just 25-of-57 passes for 242 yards and one touchdown while throwing three interceptions. He was improving during the spring before linebacker Patrick Willis leveled him in a full-contact drill.
"We needed to put them in a fast-moving scrimmage where they had to make decisions knowing they were going to get hit. I thought one of the things we saw after our evaluation of last year was some of the performances in live situations weren't what we expected. We wanted to see them perform in live situations and make some checks and I think we came out pretty good. Robert's incident probably would've happened anyway because he's a tough quarterback. Knowing Robert, he'd have banged it up anyway."
Spurlock is hoping Lane has plenty of time to heal. In Cutcliffe's offense, Spurlock was often forced to look for opportunities from the pocket, where his lack of height was a problem. In Mazzone's system, Spurlock is going to be used as a weapon who can get out of the pocket and run with the football or throw on the run.
Spurlock had a decent statistical day in the Grove Bowl -- 16-for-27 passing, 222 yards, three touchdowns -- but he committed many of the same mistakes he made last season during a miserable debut that didn't make it to the third week of the season before he was benched.
Spurlock didn't throw an interception against the Rebels' defense but he did unleash a few ill-advised passes that fell incomplete and could have easily been intercepted. He threw when he should have scrambled, fired bullets when touch was needed and turned short losses into potential disasters by scrambling further and further behind the line of scrimmage.
"I'm loving the offense right now," Spurlock said. "It's my last go-round and I just have to make the best of it."
From all accounts, Spurlock is a fine young man. He's articulate, thoughtful and considerate. He just hasn't proven he can win under center in the SEC.
"I'm 22 years old and I feel like I'm 52 now," Spurlock said. "It's still football and it's fun. Last year was my coming-out party and it didn't work out. It wasn't my coming-out party and now it's about going out and showing everybody I can still play the game."
One year ago, Jamal Pittman was sitting in a Memphis jail after pointing a firearm at an undercover police officer after an argument with a car full of men on the streets of Memphis.
Pittman (6-2, 240) was suspended from the first six games of 2004 and ended the season with just 17 carries.
One year later, the junior was listed as the Rebels' co-starting tailback along with Vashon Pearson (6-0, 205). But Pearson, who picked up 807 yards rushing last season, did not meet NCAA academic eligibility requirements and won't be with the Rebels this season.
With the announcement of Pearson's departure in early June, Pittman suddenly inherited a lot more carries. He intends to make the most of the opportunity.
"It feels real good," Pittman said. "It feels like the day before Christmas. You're all antsy about everything. You can't wait until the season starts. You feel good that they're giving you another chance. I like the coaching staff a lot. They just bring a whole new attitude to the team."
"Jamal is a great zone runner, which is our base running game," Ole Miss running backs coach Frank Wilson said. "He has excellent patience and strength and is a runner who can get us the tough yards. He's also been impressive catching the ball out of the backfield. I'd like to see him improve his play on play-action plays -- he needs to draw more defenders to him with better fakes and hitting holes harder without the ball. When he learns to finish in those situations, he'll be much more effective for us. We expect big things from Jamal. He has been great on and off the field. Ball security and finishing every play will give him a chance to be excellent."
Sophomore Alan Abrams (6-0, 205), who ran for 275 yards in '04, moved up the depth chart a notch when Pearson left.
"From day one of spring, Alan has continuously improved," Wilson told the Ole Miss Spirit. Early on, he had to get a grasp of zone running, that everything was not always a cutback move. He's been outstanding in running north and south and he's good at pressing while allowing the play to develop. He's got solid hands and has been good in pass protection too. Alan hasn't been a surprise, but let's say I'm pleased with his progress from start to finish."
At fullback, red-shirt freshman Jason Cook (6-0, 230) was solid in the spring and should get the bulk of the time now that Rick Razzano and Lorenzo Townsend have graduated.
"He's real tough and has been very consistent all spring," Wilson said.
"Jason is unselfish and has a great desire to get better and be an impact player. He's been great on and off the field. We need to get him stronger so he matches up better with the defensive linemen he'll be blocking, but he'll get there because he wants to. He does the dirty work for us and does it well.
WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS
Depth is an issue at Ole Miss at almost every position. However, the Rebels are talented at wide receiver and there is plenty of experience to draw upon. Senior Mario Hill (6-1, 195) caught 36 passes last season. Senior Mike Espy (6-0, 195) caught 24 and senior Taye Biddle (6-1, 175) caught 15.
Junior Lawrence Lilly (6-4, 275) returns at tight end, as does blocking specialist Jimmy Brooks (6-4, 270), yet another senior. Larry Kendrick (6-0, 215), a senior, split time between defensive back and wide receiver last season before settling in as a wide receiver in the spring.
Orgeron sees Kendrick as a Reggie Bush-sort of weapon on offense. Junior Matt Pierce (6-1, 185) was emerging as a possession threat before turning an ankle during spring drills.
"We are still working on different combinations and trying to determine some things in terms of how they all fit into this offense to give us the best chance to be productive," Ole Miss wide receivers coach Matt Lubick told the Ole Miss Spirit. "We have some versatile receivers who can play more than one position. Some run better routes than others, some block better, some are better inside, etc."
The one player who separated himself from the pack in the spring is Hill, who displayed superb hands and excellent route-running. Biddle and junior college transfer Burnell "Mike" Wallace (6-0, 175) will back up Hill.
Biddle will start as the Rebels' "X" receiver. Espy will start out as the "Z" receiver, with sophomore Carlos Suggs (6-5, 200) and Pierce behind him. The Rebels' "F" receiver, a position that could be filled by a fullback, slot receiver or wideout, will usually be manned by Kendrick.
"Larry is very versatile," Lubick said. "He's the guy who will have to be all over the place -- running routes, blocking, getting open in tight situations, carrying the ball on straight handoffs. He's done those things well. Larry is not the fastest player in our group, but he knows what to do with the ball when he gets it in his hands. He makes people miss. I'm excited about him."
Mississippi lost center Chris Spencer one year early when he declared for the NFL draft. Spencer's decision proved to be a good one when he was selected 26th overall by the Seattle Seahawks. Guard Marcus Johnson was taken in the second round by the Minnesota Vikings and four-year starter Doug Buckles graduated as well. Throw in a new zone-blocking scheme and a new coach in former Syracuse offensive coordinator George DeLeone and it's no wonder that the Rebels are deeply concerned about the offensive line.
"We are a work in progress," DeLeone told the Ole Miss Spirit. "Every one of these kids has responded extremely well to the changes we have made in the system and the blocking schemes. There is not a day that went by when they didn't try as hard as they could to get better in fundamentals and in the system."
Senior Bobby Harris (6-4, 310) is set at left tackle while senior Tre Stallings (6-4, 317) is the incumbent at right tackle. Everything else is up in the air.
Red-shirt freshman David Traxler (6-6, 292) will be Harris' backup. Sophomore Darryl Harris (6-3, 285) moved from tackle to left guard and appears set to open the season as the starter there. Red-shirt freshman Tim Henderson (6-3, 312) was impressive during the spring and will back up Harris.
At center, senior Tony Bonds (6-4, 308) appeared to have won the job during spring drills but he injured a knee. Junior Ben Boyce (6-2, 300) finished the spring as the starter though Bonds is expected to return.
Sophomore Thomas Eckers (6-2, 290) ended the spring as the starting right guard though he will have to pull off an upset to start against Memphis on Labor Day. Junior James McCoy (6-3, 312), red-shirt freshman Maurice Miller (6-3, 343) and freshman Chris Baker (6-3, 303) will all get extended looks in August, as will incoming freshman Michael Oher, who was ranked No. 2 on the Mobile Register's Super Southeast 120.
Sophomore Marcus Cohen 6-5, 290) and freshman Lance Lee (6-5, 281) will battle to back up Stallings at right tackle.
Jonathan Nichols won the Groza Award in 2003 and made 20-of-27 field goals as a senior. He will be badly missed. Freshman Justin Sparks (6-3, 170) could win the job immediately, though juniors Will Mosely (6-2, 200) and Hunter Bray (6-1, 200) were solid in the spring. It's a major area of concern for a team that can't afford to blow scoring chances.
Ryan Nielsen was a graduate assistant when Joe Cullen allegedly passed out in a Subway sandwich shop in Oxford, creating a stir that led to his dismissal. Suddenly, Nielsen was an assistant coach in the Southeastern Conference. He believes he's ready for the challenge, thanks in part to the defensive line coaching background of Orgeron.
"I know this is a challenge, but I'm learning from the best," Nielsen said. "Coach O would not put me in this position if he didn't think I was ready for it. That gives me confidence."
The Rebels' spring performance on the defensive line gave Nielsen a further confidence boost. The Rebels have some playmakers, some size and a healthy amount of experience up front.
"We started kind of slow, but lately we have picked up our play," Nielsen said. "Our guys have bought in and are playing and working hard. I have seen improvement each day, and that's what it's all about. We haven't taken a step back and that's been our main goal with the guys up front. Just keep moving forward and everything will be fine. They have done that."
Senior Jayme Mitchell (6-6, 285) will be one of the Rebels' starting defensive ends. Mitchell had 23 tackles a season ago. Senior Corvelli Haynes (6-3, 255) and red-shirt freshman Reterio Brown (6-3, 238), who was moved to defensive end from linebacker during the spring, will see significant time.
On the other end, red-shirt freshman Chris Bowers (6-2, 231) pulled off a shocker and won the job during spring drills.
"Chris has a non-stop attitude and has shown up in every practice with big plays," Nielsen said. "He's made plays in every situation and is an excellent pass rusher. Chris is exactly what you are looking for at Leo. He's tough, he will mix it up with the 300 pounders and he's tenacious. I am very excited about him. The one thing I'd like, however, is for him to gain some weight. We'd like him to be 240 and think he will get there."
Sophomore Viciente DeLoach (6-4, 245) is quick and athletic and could emerge as an excellent pass-rushing threat. Senior Michael Bozeman (6-2, 290) had an excellent spring and won the nose guard job. Sophomore Jeremy Garrett (6-1, 270) will back him up. At defensive tackle, junior Dedrick Clark (6-4, 286) started during the spring while senior McKinley Boykin (6-2, 285) rehabilitated from off-season surgery.
It took Orgeron all of about five seconds to fall in love with junior Patrick Willis (6-2, 230), who recorded 70 tackles and five sacks last season despite playing in a backup role. Willis won't be a backup this season. Instead, Willis will be the middle linebacker in the Rebels' new 4-3 defensive scheme.
Senior Kelvin Robinson 6-1, 225) moved from strong safety to outside linebacker and regularly won Orgeron's praise as well.
The upset came in the form of walk-on sophomore Dontae Reed (6-2, 205), who beat out former Mississippi Mr. Football Garry Pack (6-1, 220) to win the other outside linebacker slot.
"We started spring training and due to a lack of numbers, even though he's a non-scholarship player, he was on the second group," Ole Miss linebackers coach Shawn Slocum told the Commercial-Appeal of Memphis. "He just started making plays and listening to everything I said in the meetings. As a coach, if you're truly being objective, you're going to play that guy that makes plays."
Reed not only made plays, he also picked up the system much more quickly than Pack, who had 27 tackles as a freshman. Both players will play significant amounts, but Reed appears ready to handle the starting job.
"The coaches didn't know anything about me or anybody," Reed said. "They gave me a chance to do my thing and this is where I'm at."
Sophomore Marquis McBeath (6-0, 225), who has been haunted by shoulder problems during his college career, will back up Willis in the middle. The Rebels signed five linebackers in February and at least two will likely figure into the rotation as true freshmen.
"It's not an ideal position to be in, but we will be counting on some of the signees to make an impact quickly at the linebacker slots," Slocum told the Ole Miss Spirit. "We hope their transition to college football will be a quick one."
No one said anything out loud last season, but there was a great philosophical debate between defensive coordinator Chuck Driesbach and defensive backs coach Jay Hopson. Both men are gone now and there is a refreshing attitude emerging among the Rebels' experience secondary.
"Because of that attitude, we will be able to reach our goals," Mississippi
defensive backs coach Chris Rippon said. "They are committed to learning the new system, they are attentive in the meeting room and they have distinct DB personalities -- they are extremely upbeat. You have to have that mentality to survive and thrive back there in no man's land."
Senior cornerback Travis Johnson (6-1, 191) is back after another solid campaign. He's one of the league's most underrated players. Sophomore Nate Banks (5-11, 180) will back up Johnson.
The other cornerback, junior returning starter Trumaine McBride (5-10, 180), emerged as a playmaker for the Rebels last season and appears poised to have a breakout season this fall. Red-shirt freshmen Dustin Mouzon (5-11, 170) and Terrell Jackson (5-10, 190) are battling for the No. 2 spot behind McBride.
Junior Charles Clark (6-0, 195) moved from strong safety to free safety and had a huge spring, moving ahead of sophomore Kareem Moore (5-11, 210) and red-shirt freshman Mico McSwain (6-1, 203) on the depth chart. At strong safety, red-shirt freshman Jamarca Sanford (5-10, 200), who started spring drills at corner, was moved to linebacker before the Rebels found a home for him in the back of the secondary. Junior Bryan Brown (5-9, 200), sophomore Edwin Gelin (6-2, 191) and senior Bryant Thomas (6-1, 200) are also in the mix with Sanford at strong safety and will play significant amounts in nickel and dime packages.
Mississippi would love for Cody Ridgeway to have a fifth year of eligibility but it doesn't work that way. As it is, punting is a major concern.
"We don't have a true punter on campus and it says something positive about our punt operation that we haven't had any punts blocked (in spring),"
Rippon said. "That's a big deal and a good sign for the guys who are charged with protecting. We are still conducting walk-on tryouts and we are anxious about the signees -- Justin Sparks (6-3, 170) and Rob Park (6-0, 185) -- we picked up in the recruiting season. My biggest concern right now is the punter. Who will be the guy?"
Park, who played for Memphis University School, was a two-time all-state pick at punter and quarterback. He averaged 41 yards a punt during his high school career.
Sparks, also from Memphis, played for Briarcrest. Also a kicker, Sparks was ranked the nation's No. 19 kicker by one recruiting service after making all his extra points and 12-of-17 field goals as a senior. Sparks was chosen all-state as a punter and kicker after his junior season, during which he averaged 41 yards per punt.
While the Rebels have depth issues all over the field, there are plenty of qualified return men. Espy, Kendrick and McSwain are the leading candidates to return punts and kickoffs and deep snapper Sidney McLaurin is one of the SEC's most consistent specialists. In terms of coverage and returns, look for Mississippi to be above average.
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