NCF Nation: Damien Jackson

Everywhere Ole Miss’ secondary turns, it’s there: 4-8.

It’s a simple reminder -- or punishment -- of the Rebels’ disappointing 2010 record and it’s something the secondary takes seriously.

The secondary knows the word around town is that it was the reason for last season’s debacle. And players read how the defensive backs squandered chances at comebacks.

It’s hard to argue.

The Rebels surrendered 246.3 passing yards per game, which ranked 11th in the SEC and 103rd nationally. Ole Miss collected just six interceptions, but allowed 24 touchdowns though the air.

For that, Ole Miss’ secondary understands why it must live with its damning label and why the only way it will vanish is with its own transformation.

“Every day we go out onto the field, we carry that on our back -- 4-8,” junior college transfer cornerback Wesley Pendleton said. “Every day in the huddle we tell ourselves we are not going 4-8 again, no matter what.”

But shaking that stigma won’t be easy.

The Rebels entered spring sparse at the cornerback spot, with just three having any field experience with last season‘s team. Reserve Julian Whitehead also left the team before spring.

However, one of those three, senior Marcus Temple was already out for the spring after undergoing surgery for a sports hernia.

Pendleton, who arrived in January, was immediately thrown into the regular rotation with sophomore Charles Sawyer, who started four games in 2010, and youngsters Cliff Coleman and Frank Crawford.

As for safety, the Rebels’ only experience comes from senior Damien Jackson, who started eight games in 2010, and sophomore Brishen Mathews, who played in all 12 games, recording 15 tackles.

Helping out at safety is JUCO transfer Ivan Nicholas, who has impressed at times this spring.

The numbers aren't ideal, but Burns isn’t worried.

“I can take thin as long as there’s talent,” Burns said. “The guys we have are very talented. They’re eager to be coached and they want to be good and that’s a combination that gives you a chance to be successful.”

It’s quite the rebuilding process for Burns, who joined the Rebels after coaching Kansas State’s secondary in 2010. With the Wildcats, safety Ty Zimmerman was a Freshman All-American, while defensive backs Stephen Harrison and Terrance Sweeney earned All-Big 12 honors.

But it’s not coverage schemes or fancy formations that Burns teaches. His basic rule is to have his players go into each practice with the goal of getting something out of it, whether it’s improving one’s stance or learning to finish plays.

One motivational story Burns tells is about coaching long-time New York Giants safety Jason Sehorn at USC. Sehorn got beat by a receiver on a double move and while he was frustrated and embarrassed, he got back in line, went again, and batted the ball away.

Sehorn’s willingness to get back up has motivated Burns’ current players and he thinks they are getting the message.

“I’ve been real impressed with their work ethic and attitude,” Burns said. “If we continue to work together, stick together, stay together, we have a chance of being really good.”

That work ethic has spilled over into 6 a.m. walk-throughs, where the secondary is improving its communication skills. And one instance of attitude adjustment came when Burns benched Sawyer for falling behind in practice. Burns said Sawyer’s demeanor immediately changed and is finally showing quality reps in order to stay away from the back end of the depth chart.

But spring practice isn’t going to magically reshape this unit. It’s a starting point, but there is much more for it to learn.

The thing Burns wants his players to take from spring is developing confidence and learning to finish plays. The Rebels got caught looking a lot in 2010 and Burns doesn’t want that epidemic plaguing them this time around.

“You gotta believe you can finish and make the play,” he said.

“I’ve had a lot of corners that could cover. I’ve had a lot of defensive backs that could hit. But the guy that you really remember is the guy who could finish on the ball.”
It was obvious back in the spring that junior college newcomer Damien Jackson was going to be a key component of Ole Miss' defense.

Defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix couldn't stop talking about Jackson's knack for being around the ball and making plays.

With senior free safety Fon Ingram scheduled to have arthroscopic knee surgery on Thursday, Jackson becomes even more important to the Rebels. He was already pushing to be a starter, but now it's a given. Ingram could miss up to four weeks after injuring his knee in Saturday's scrimmage.

Get ready to see a slew of new faces in the Ole Miss secondary this fall. The good thing with Jackson is that he's older and had a chance to go through spring practice. The backups, though, at safety are true freshman Brishen Matthews and redshirt freshman Dele Junaid, at least with Ingram sidelined. Matthews has been especially impressive during fall camp.

Redshirt freshman Charles Sawyer is also pushing to be a big part of the rotation at cornerback and is essentially a third starter right now.

The only holdover from last season in the Ole Miss secondary is senior strong safety Johnny Brown. Everybody else will be a first-time starter, and at least four of the players expected to be a part of the secondary rotation will be playing their first snaps in a major college game.
The SEC lost a bevy of great defensive backs from a year ago.

In fact, 12 were taken in the NFL draft, and seven went in the first three rounds. Gone are Eric Berry, Joe Haden, Kareem Jackson, Major Wright, Javier Arenas, Chad Jones, Myron Lewis, Walt McFadden, Marquis Johnson, Kendrick Lewis, Reshad Jones and Trevard Lindley.

What’s that leave in the way of the top defensive backfields in the SEC for 2010?

Here’s a look:

[+] EnlargeJanori Jenkins
Cliff Welch/Icon SMI Janoris Jenkins is one of the mainstays in the Florida defensive backfield.
1. Florida: It’s a testament to how well the Gators have recruited that they own the top secondary in the SEC even after losing Haden and Wright early to the NFL. Janoris Jenkins is one of the top cornerbacks in the league, and good luck in finding a better safety tandem than Will Hill and Ahmad Black. Talented freshmen are waiting in the wings, too, like Matt Elam and Joshua Shaw.

2. South Carolina: The Gamecocks were second in the league last season in pass defense and should be even harder to throw the ball on in 2010. Sophomore Stephon Gilmore is one of the best young cornerbacks in college football, and his former high school teammate, safety DeVonte Holloman, may be one of the breakout players in the league. Senior Chris Culliver, a second-team All-SEC selection last season, also returns and is switching from safety to cornerback.

3. LSU: If you’re looking for the fastest secondary in the SEC, look no further than the unit the Tigers will put on the field this season. Patrick Peterson is the best cornerback in the country -- period -- and his running mate on the other side, Morris Claiborne, has been turning heads since the spring. They may end up being the best cornerback tandem in the league. Jai Eugene has moved from cornerback to safety, while Brandon Taylor returns at the other safety. He, too, is a former cornerback.

4. Auburn: There’s nothing like adding three veteran leaders back to the mix, and that’s what Auburn will do with senior safeties Zac Etheridge, Aairon Savage and Mike McNeil. All are returning from serious injuries. One of the priorities this season is to get junior cornerback Neiko Thorpe more help. He played too many snaps a year ago. Demond Washington is returning to his cornerback position after filling in at safety last season.

5. Vanderbilt: Don’t blink. Vanderbilt has consistently played some of the best pass defense in the SEC under Jamie Bryant, who oversees the Commodores’ secondary. Safety Sean Richardson and cornerback Casey Hayward are returning starters, and both have what it takes to be All-SEC players. Junior Jamie Graham has settled in at the other cornerback after playing receiver earlier in his career. Nickelback Eddie Foster also returns, and the Commodores liked what they saw this spring from freshman safeties Jay Fullam and Kenny Ladler.

6. Alabama: The only guy who won’t be new for the Crimson Tide this season in the secondary is junior safety Mark Barron, who led the SEC with seven interceptions a year ago. Everybody else who was in the rotation is gone. Alabama still has plenty of young talent in its defensive backfield, but there could be some growing pains early. Sophomore cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick has unlimited potential. There’s also a chance that junior college cornerback DeQuan Menzie could be back after tearing his Achilles tendon in the spring.

7. Georgia: The Bulldogs gave up far too many big plays in the secondary last season and allowed a league-high 25 touchdown passes. They should be better in 2010, particularly with the addition of junior college safety Jakar Hamilton, who was one of the stars of the spring. Junior cornerback Brandon Boykin has the skills to be one of the league’s top cover guys, but the Bulldogs are still thin at the cornerback position. They can’t afford any injuries.

8. Tennessee: The dismissal of starting safety Darren Myles Jr. following his arrest and involvement in a bar brawl drops the Vols down a spot or two. They don’t have a lot of depth behind him. The leader of the unit is sophomore free safety Janzen Jackson, who can be one of the best defensive backs in the league if he stays out of trouble off the field. Junior cornerback Art Evans is underrated and will be the Vols’ top cover guy.

9. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs got big performances from freshmen last season in their secondary, which means their pass defense should improve considerably from their No. 11 showing in the SEC a year ago. Sophomore cornerback Corey Broomfield had six interceptions, and sophomore Johnthan Banks had four interceptions. Banks is moving to free safety this season. Also look for a big junior season from strong safety Charles Mitchell, who is Mississippi State’s enforcer back there.

10. Kentucky: With Lindley missing four full games last season with a high ankle sprain, the rest of the Wildcats’ defensive backs were forced to step up their games. Three starters return, including budding star Winston Guy at free safety. Cornerbacks Paul Warford and Randall Burden are also back, as Kentucky started five defensive backs in most games. Finding another safety will be key this preseason.

11. Ole Miss: The lone returning starter is senior safety Johnny Brown, who’s coming off his best season. The Rebels’ other safety a year ago, Kendrick Lewis, was one of their mainstays on defense, and replacing him won’t be easy. Junior college newcomer Damien Jackson will draw that job, and he was extremely impressive in the spring. Ole Miss will be both inexperienced and thin at the cornerback positions.

12. Arkansas: The Hogs gladly welcome back junior cornerback Isaac Madison, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. Their pass defense suffered with Madison out of the lineup, and they finished last in the league, allowing 401.2 yards per game. They also gave up 22 touchdown passes. To get more speed on the field, Arkansas moved Rudell Crim to safety during the spring. Ramon Broadway returns at the other cornerback and Elton Ford at the other safety.

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