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.”