SEC: Wesley Pendleton

We continue to rank all the positions in the SEC and turn our attention to groups of defensive backs the conference has to offer.

Past rankings:
On to the league's secondaries:

[+] EnlargeTyrann Mathieu
Dale Zanine/US PresswireTyrann Mathieu is a force to be reckoned with in the LSU secondary.
1. LSU: The Tigers bring back a load of talent here. Tyrann Mathieu and his Honey Badger persona return, but he might not be LSU's best pure corner. While Mathieu has a true knack for finding the ball, no matter where he is, junior Tharold Simon, who replaces Thorpe Award winner Morris Claiborne, might have the best cover ability on the team. Junior safety Eric Reid takes the back end of the field away and will challenge to be one of the nation's top safeties this fall. The coaches are still waiting for safety Craig Loston to break out, and his solid spring was an encouragement. Keep an eye on safety Micah Eugene, who turned heads this spring.

2. Georgia: The Bulldogs have some depth concerns and some players will face early-season suspensions, but the Bulldogs are loaded at the top. Bacarri Rambo is one of the nation's best safeties and he has a very solid partner in Shawn Williams, who led the Dawgs in tackles last year. Seniors Sanders Commings and Branden Smith are back, but will likely sit out the start of the year because of suspension. That leaves Malcolm Mitchell, who moved from receiver, to fill in and he's no stranger to defense. The coaches are also excited about youngster Damian Swann, who will play early.

3. Alabama: With three starters gone, this group is drawing a lot of comparisons to the 2010 unit that struggled at times. However, this batch of DBs insists it'll be more prepared this fall and shakes off the comparisons. Veteran Robert Lester is back at safety and is an All-SEC-type player. Junior cornerback Dee Milliner has 16 career starts under his belt and is an underrated talent, and the coaches are expecting to get a lot out of junior college transfers Travell Dixon and Deion Belue. Keep an eye on safety HaHa Clinton-Dix, who has the talent to be a star in this league.

4. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs own one of the league's best corner duos in seniors Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield. Banks might hold the title as the league's best returning cover corner. Darius Slay is also another corner to watch, as he has some legit playmaking ability. Junior safety Nickoe Whitley is back as well and he would have had better numbers if not for a ruptured Achilles tendon that cut his 2011 season short. He grabbed four interceptions in nine games and should be 100 percent this fall.

5. Florida: This group was pretty young last year, but now has some quality experience under its belt. Safety Matt Elam is the best of the bunch and should challenge to be the league's top safety this year. Sophomore Marcus Roberson had a solid freshman season and has the makings to be a top cover corner in this league. The other corner spot is up for grabs, but keep an eye on sophomore Loucheiz Purifoy, who the staff is very excited about. Josh Evans had a good spring at free safety, but he'll have his hands full fighting off sophomore De'Ante Saunders, who started nine games last year.

6. Missouri: The star of this group is junior corner E.J. Gaines, who recorded only two interceptions, but he broke up 16 passes in 2011 and is bonafide All-SEC candidate. Across from Gaines is senior Kip Edwards, who returns for his second year as a starter and has 37 games to his credit. Edwards turned into a solid cover man toward the end of last season. Seven players return with starting experience, including safeties Kenronte Walker (four starts), who was named the team's most improved safety this spring, and Braylon Webb (four), who had a strong freshman year.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks are down three starters, but they aren't without talent. Senior safety D.J. Swearinger, the lone returning starter, is one of the league's top safeties and is solid against the pass and the run. Vet Akeem Auguste returns after missing all of last year with a foot injury, and he's back at corner after moving to safety in 2010. The questions begin with sophomores Victor Hampton (corner) and Brison Williams (safety). Hampton has the talent to succeed, but has some maturing to do. Williams struggled in his only start last year, but the staff really likes his upside.

8. Vanderbilt: Casey Hayward and Sean Richardson are gone, but the Commodores still possess some pretty good talent in the secondary, starting with corner Trey Wilson, who had a solid 2011 in Hayward's shadow. The coaches like what they've seen from junior corner Andre Hal, and safety Kenny Ladler could be a real player at free safety. Expect Eric Samuels and Javon Marshall, who have both see plenty of field time in their careers, to get into the safety rotation this fall.

9. Auburn: The Tigers' secondary took some lumps last year, but certainly has experience back there. Three veteran starters are back with 33 combined starts from a year ago. Fifth-year senior cornerback T'Sharvan Bell didn't go through spring while he recovered from knee surgery, but has the talent to be a top corner in this league. Juniors Chris Davis (corner) and Demetruce McNeal are both back and sophomore Jermaine Whitehead, who had a solid freshman campaign, will get time at safety.

10. Tennessee: Tennessee gave up 7 yards per attempt last year, but things could turnaround this fall. Tennessee has a lot of game experience at corner, including senior Prentiss Waggner, who is the leader of the group. Sophomore Brian Randolph had a solid freshman campaign and junior Brent Brewer is returning to the other safety spot after suffering an ACL injury in late October. Izauea Lanier was ruled ineligible this summer, meaning Marsalis Teague and Eric Gordon will compete with Justin Coleman for a corner spot.

11. Arkansas: Sophomore Tevin Mitchel had a solid first year in Fayetteville and is on course to have a true breakout year this fall. Junior Eric Bennett is holding down one of the safety sports and started 13 games in 2011 after moving from cornerback last spring. The staff is still waiting on senior corner Darius Winston to live up to the hype that followed him from high school. Freshmen Kelvin Fisher Jr. and Davyon McKinney will get their chances to play this fall and help with depth.

12. Ole Miss: The Rebels should be better against the pass this year and things start with veteran safety Charles Sawyer, who has All-SEC quality and should have had at least three more than the four interceptions he recorded last year. Former JUCO transfer corner Wesley Pendleton had an impressive year last season, but looked even better this spring. Nickolas Brassell is gone, but the coaches hope to get more out of former freshman standout Senquez Golson, and junior Brishen Mathews returns from back injury to take the hybrid Husky position.

13. Kentucky: The Wildcats must replace two starting corners, but the coaches feel good about senior Cartier Rice and redshirt freshman Marcus Caffey. Caffey, who moved from running back, might have the most upside and was one of Kentucky's top players this spring. Senior starting safeties Martavius Neloms and Mikie Benton are back. Neloms had a solid spring and racked up 71 tackles last year. Behind them, the Wildcats are full of unproven youngsters.

14. Texas A&M: This is where the Aggies could really struggle. Texas A&M ranked 109th nationally in pass defense last year and could start three sophomores in its secondary this fall. Senior safety Steven Campbell can be a real playmaker for this group, but he's struggled to stay healthy during his career. Senior Dustin Harris has shown flashes on defense, but left spring as a backup to sophomore Deshazor Everett. Sophomore Floyd Raven, who was impressive this spring, has the edge over JUCO transfer Tremaine Jacobs at the other corner spot. The coaches are hoping this is a more athletic group in 2012.
Nickolas Brassell was in a deep enough hole academically when Hugh Freeze took the Ole Miss job back in December that Freeze never counted on having Brassell on the field next season.

Sure, Freeze was always hopeful and did all he could to help Brassell, one of the most dynamic freshmen in the SEC last season, but the official word came down Friday. Ole Miss announced that Brassell was academically ineligible and would transfer.

Brassell, who became the first Ole Miss player since 1988 to start on both offense and defense, missed all but a few practices this spring to try and get his academics in order. Ultimately, he didn't pass the required 18 credit hours over the last two semesters.

It's always tough to lose a player of his ability. Again, though, Freeze knew it was going to be a long shot for Brassell to be eligible.

The plan was to use him at cornerback and then play him situationally at receiver. The good news for the Rebels is that both Wesley Pendleton and Dehendret Collins had big springs, and there's also some depth at cornerback. Senquez Golson will be back from baseball in the fall after starting four games as true freshman at cornerback last season. Also, heralded signee Trae Elston will be on campus this summer.

The Rebels are still looking for more playmakers on offense, and Brassell would have certainly helped there. He also returned a punt 84 yards for a touchdown last season.
OXFORD, Miss. -- Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze knew things weren’t going to be easy in Oxford. He returned to the town and program he loved, but he did so knowing he’d be inheriting a slew of issues, both on and off the field.

However, he didn’t know that the biggest would be in the academic world.

With final exams only days away, Freeze is still concerned about the academic standing of a few players, including key starters Jeff Scott (running back) and Nickolas Brassell (cornerback/receiver).

[+] EnlargeHugh Freeze
Shelby Daniel/Icon SMIOle Miss coach Hugh Freeze is hoping to invigorate his team's fan base in his debut season at the school.
“I knew that there were some issues, but probably found out it was a little tougher than what I thought it was when I got here,” Freeze said about Ole Miss’ academic issues.

“We’ve made some headway, but we inherited such a mountain to climb that I think it would be presumptuous for me to believe we’re going to climb every single mountain. I don’t think that’s going to be reality.”

The reality of losing those players makes Freeze nervous heading into summer workouts. While he’s seen improvement from them throughout the spring, he’s not ready to say they’ll be academically eligible once the spring semester finishes.

“I feel better because I see improvement, but if you’re asking me do I feel confident at this point to say that they’re going to make it, no, I don’t feel confident to say that,” Freeze said.

“When you start out at nearly zero, it’s a tall task to climb in one semester.”

Although the next few days will be nerve-racking for Freeze and his coaching staff, he is very proud of the way some players improved their classroom habits, especially Scott. The struggles Scott was going through when Freeze first arrived seemed to dissipate as spring progressed.

“I’m extremely proud of Jeff Scott. He has bought in,” Freeze said. “Couldn’t be more pleased with what we’re getting from him right now, as far as effort in the classroom. I’m [hopeful] that he has a good chance of making it. He didn’t have as far to come as some others.”

Having Scott in Ole Miss’ starting lineup this fall will be huge for the Rebels. Last season, Scott was eighth in the SEC in all-purpose yardage, averaging 101.4 yards per game. He also led the Rebels with 529 rushing yards and six touchdowns in his nine starts.

Scott, who will be a junior this fall, entered spring as Ole Miss’ top playmaker, but there isn’t much depth at all behind him at running back. He’s one of three scholarship running backs that include senior Devin Thomas (20 career carries) and Nicholas Parker, who has spent two years on the scout team. Freeze said those two will have to compete with the four incoming freshmen due in this summer if Scott can't go.

“We’re so thin there,” Freeze said. “I’ve never inherited any team that’s as thin at running back as we are here.”

Ole Miss would benefit from Brassell’s athleticism, no matter where he lines up, but the Rebels do have pretty good depth in the secondary and Freeze said cornerback was the most productive unit for the team this spring. Wesley Pendleton and Dehendret Collins, who grabbed two interceptions in Ole Miss’ spring game, made the most progress this spring and the former junior college teammates should be pretty solid players this fall.

Standout Senquez Golson will be back after baseball and the Rebels will welcome talented incoming freshmen Trae Elston and Anthony Standifer.

Freeze will sweat out the next few days as he awaits the fate of some of his players, but he’s pleased with how his team responded to the new coaching staff this spring. It was tough to get players on board at first, and he still thinks less than 80 percent of the team has bought in, but it’s certainly higher than when he first arrived.

This would be a tough job for any coach and Freeze knows that patience will be key to getting this program back on track.

“It won’t be an overnight fix,” he said. “It probably won’t be a one-year fix. It’s a process. I call it the ‘Journey.’”
Hugh Freeze enters his first spring at Ole Miss with a lot of questions surrounding his new football team.

The same team that won just two games last year, watched its head coach get shown the door and has lost 14 straight SEC games.

Talk about a project.

For starters, Ole Miss is breaking in a totally new spread offense for a team that isn't exactly built for it. Plus there are four scholarship quarterbacks competing this spring and the ones who played last year had a host of issues.

Don't be surprised if junior college transfer Bo Wallace turns some heads this spring at QB because he's more familiar with Freeze's offense. He spent 2010 with Freeze at Arkansas State before going the JUCO route. While he had a record-setting season at East Mississippi Community College in 2011, Wallace has zero experience at this level. He redshirted in 2010, so he has yet to take a snap at the FBS level.

The defense will also see quite a few changes, as defensive coordinator Dave Wommack has said he plans to move the Rebels all around the field. Ole Miss ran a 4-2-5 defense last year under Tyrone Nix, but will come out in multiple sets this time around. It's going to take some time for players to adjust. It also means the Rebels might have to rely more on its secondary again. The good thing for Ole Miss is that just about everyone from the secondary is back, including standouts Charles Sawyer and Wesley Pendleton.

Sawyer might have been Ole Miss' best defensive player last year, while Pendleton has a chance to be a very solid corner in the SEC next fall. Also, keep an eye on Aaron Garbutt, who transferred from the JUCO ranks last year and was sixth on the team in tackles. Getting more out of them this spring will go a long way to helping this defense adjust.

At linebacker, the Rebels return all four starters, but adjusting to the new defensive formations could be more of a chore for them. But having Mike Marry back will be big for the Rebels this spring, considering D.T. Shackelford won't go through the spring as he recovers from another surgery on his knee. Marry filled in nicely for Shackelford last season, leading the Rebels in tackles as just a sophomore.

Marry will be accompanied by rising sophomores Serderius Bryant and C.J. Johnson. Bryant was the better of the two former freshmen last season and was fourth on the team in tackles. For Johnson, the spring will be crucial for his maturation. He started to come on strong toward the end of the season, but he still needs to make strides in his game before the end of the summer. Johnson could also line up at defense end, a position that must replace former star Kentrell Lockett.

The defense has more positives, but there are still questions surrounding where guys will lineup and how they'll take to all the changes. Plus, this is practically the same group that ranked last in total defense, rushing defense and scoring defense in the SEC last year.

On offense, finding a quarterback is priority No. 1, with improving an offensive line that took more than a few steps back in 2011 as a close second. Two starters are gone from the line and Freeze has said that the linemen he has weren't recruited for a "more power-type offense."

Freeze has a lot on his plate, but he knew that coming in. He understands that there were locker room issues in the past and the field issues are well documented. This won't be a quick fix by any means, but this spring will be really interesting for Freeze because even he'll have a lot of questions of his own to sort through when the Rebels start digging deep into spring practice.

Did you know? Week 5

September, 30, 2011
It’s time to take a look at some interesting facts that you may not have known about the SEC as we head into the fifth weekend of the season:
  • Arkansas leads SEC, averaging 47.0 points per game in wins. Kentucky, averaging 20.5 points per game in its wins, is 12th.
  • Alabama’s offense is averaging 6.9 yards per play, which leads the SEC. Last year, three SEC teams were above 6.9 yards per play -- Auburn (7.4), Arkansas (7.1) and Alabama (7.0).
  • Alabama has allowed only four plays of 20 or more yards this season, which is tied for second nationally. The Tide is also one of eight FBS teams to not allow a rushing play of 20-plus yards this season.
  • Florida leads the SEC and is tied for seventh nationally with only two sacks allowed in four games this season.
  • Saturday marks the first game between Alabama and Florida since 2006 that one isn't ranked No. 1 in the nation. This will also be the 14th straight game between the two in which one is ranked in the top 10 (every game since 1990).
  • In its two wins, Mississippi State has not allowed any sacks this season. Only Duke and Texas A&M have not allowed any sacks in its wins (two-or-more) this season.
  • Only Vanderbilt and Connecticut have given up just one red zone touchdown this season, lowest in FBS. Vandy opponents have only score one touchdown in six trips to the red zone.
  • Florida leads the nation in opponents’ third-down conversions. The Gator defense has allowed opponents to convert just 21.1 percent of their third downs (11 of 52).
  • Auburn leads the nation in kickoffs with the average kickoff going 69.54 yards. Tiger kicker Cody Parkey leads the SEC with 15 touchbacks this season.
  • Georgia’s Bacarri Rambo leads the nation in passes defended per game (interceptions and pass deflections) with 2.33 (seven in three games). He has four interceptions and three pass deflections this season.
  • LSU’s Michael Ford leads the SEC in most 10-plus-yard rushing plays against ranked teams with seven. Georgia’s Isaiah Crowell is second with five.
  • The average game time in the SEC is three hours and 16 minutes, which is four minutes more than the average for all FBS games (3:12). Arkansas plays the quickest games in the SEC at three hours, 10 minutes while Auburn’s games are the longest at three hours, 25 minutes.
  • SEC teams are leading the nation in punt returns, averaging 31.0 yards per game and 11.03 yards per return. The next closest is the Pac-12 at 19.6 yards per game. The national average is 17.5.
  • Alabama allowed just seven points in the first half of last week’s Arkansas game. The Crimson Tide has allowed seven points or less in the first half of its last nine games. The Crimson Tide has surrendered three points or less six times over the span including three first half shutouts. Chronologically, these games are: 3 by LSU (Nov. 6, 2010), 3 by Miss. State (Nov. 13, 2010), 7 by Georgia State (Nov. 18, 2010), 7 by Auburn (Nov. 26, 2010), 0 by Michigan State (Jan. 1, 2011), 0 by Kent State (Sept. 3, 2011), 3 by Penn State (Sept. 10, 2011), 0 by North Texas (Sept. 17, 2011), 7 by Arkansas (Sept. 24, 2011).
  • Arkansas is a perfect 15-of-15 (100.0 percent) inside the 20-yard line this season, which is tied for the NCAA lead. Arkansas has scored a touchdown on 12 of 15 (80.0 percent) trips in the red zone, which is tied for first in the SEC and 12th in the NCAA. Arkansas’ defense has held its opponents to 3-of-7 (42.9 percent) in the red zone, which leads the SEC and ranks second in the NCAA, and allowed touchdowns on just two of seven trips (28.6 percent), the third best percentage in the conference and sixth best in the nation.
  • Arkansas should have the mental edge over Texas A&M this weekend. The Aggies haven’t beaten an SEC team in 16 years and are 0-6 against the conference since their last win in 1995 when they beat LSU in their season opener.
  • Auburn has scored 14 points or more in a span of two minutes or less 11 times under Gene Chizik. The Tigers have pulled the trick twice this season, scoring 14 points in 58 seconds against Mississippi State and 14 points in 1:37 against Utah State. The 2009 Tigers set the bar by scoring 16 points in 1:27 of game time in the second quarter against Ball State. The 2009 team also scored 14 points in eight seconds against Ole Miss. The 2010 Tigers scored 14 points in less than two minutes six times.
  • Florida has had 36 rushes of 10 or more yards this season and 10 passes of more than 20 yards this season. The combined total is an average of 11.5 plays per game during the first four games of this season. In 2010, the Gators had 106 total plays of 10 or more rushing yards or 20 or more passing yards, an average of 8.2 plays per game. Last week against Kentucky, the Gators scored four big-play touchdowns: a 45-yard pass, a 20-yard run, an 84-yard run and a 60-yard run.
  • Georgia sophomore quarterback Aaron Murray is already fifth in Georgia’s record books in career touchdown passes thrown with 35. He has thrown multiple touchdowns in eight of his last nine games dating back to last season. In those nine games, he has thrown 23 touchdowns and eight interceptions. Mike Bobo (1994-97) is fourth in Georgia history with 38 touchdowns thrown in his career.
  • Turnover margin has been a key in Kentucky’s results under Joker Phillips. In his two seasons as head coach, the Wildcats are 5-0 in games in which the Wildcats win the turnover margin, 2-2 when the margin is tied and 1-7 when the Cats lose the turnover battle. Kentucky is plus-eight in turnover margin in its victories and -13 in losses in the 2010 and 2011 seasons.
  • LSU has capitalized on eight of its 11 takeaways this season. Against West Virginia, the Tigers scored three touchdowns following takeaways. LSU’s 11 takeaways have resulted in a total of 50 points through four games. LSU has allowed just a field goal following its three turnovers this year.
  • LSU is one of five FBS teams that is currently allowing fewer than 2.0 yards per rush. The Tigers defense has allowed just 213 yards on 111 carries so far this season (1.92 yards per rush).
  • Sixteen players have made their first career start this season for Ole Miss. They are (OFFENSE): Nickolas Brassell (CB/WR), Barry Brunetti (QB), H.R. Greer (FB), Matt Hall (OG), Donte Moncrief (WR), Jamal Mosley (TE), Collins Moore (WR) and Aaron Morris (OL). On DEFENSE, Aaron Garbutt (SAF), Uriah Grant (DT), Wesley Pendleton (CB), Justin Smith (DT), Senquez Golson (CB), Byron Bennett (DL), Frank Crawford (DB) and Ralph Williams (LB). In all, 30 Ole Miss Rebels have seen their first career action this season.
  • Last season, Mississippi State was plus-11 in the turnover margin in its seven wins and -4 in four losses. State turned the ball over just nine times in nine wins and 12 times in four losses. Through the first four weeks of the 2011 season, State is plus-4 in its victories and -1 in its losses.
  • South Carolina is off to a 4-0 start for just the eighth time in school history and for the first time since the 2001 season. In 2001, Carolina started 5-0 and finished 9-3 on the year. The Gamecocks’ best start was in 1984, when they started 9-0 and finished the season with a 10-2 mark. Carolina is 2-0 in the SEC for just the third time in its 20-year SEC history. It was 4-0 in 2001 and 2-0 in 2000.
  • South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore has 18 rushes of 10 yards or longer this season, second most in FBS.
  • Tennessee leads the SEC and ranks seventh nationally with a 57.1 percent conversion rate on third downs (24-of-42). UT is the only team in the SEC above 50 percent on third-down conversions. The Vols converted 37 percent of their third downs a year ago (69-of-189). Tennessee successfully converted 10 third-down attempts in each of its first two games in 2011 after not posting 10 conversions in a game since 2006.
With just days until the season starts, another SEC team has released its opening day depth chart.

This time, it was Ole Miss, who starts the season with a tough home opener against BYU.

This one was expected to be more exciting with the whole quarterback battle going on, but with Randall Mackey being suspended for Saturday's game because of a fight at a downtown bar, Barry Brunetti was named the starter last week.

Even with that out of the way, there were still some interesting notes to come out of coach Houston's Nutt's season-opening depth chart.

For starters, true freshman linebacker C.J. Johnson, who most people expect to be a star in the Rebels' defense is listed as the No. 2 middle linebacker behind sophomore Mike Marry. Johnson's arrival has been highly anticipated and it wouldn't be a shocker if he moved up the depth chart in the coming weeks.

Redshirt freshman linebacker Ralph Williams is currently listed ahead of junior Joel Kight at weakside linebacker. Kight started nine games in 2010.

The only true freshman to make the first starting lineup for the Rebels is wide receiver Donte Moncrief, who is ahead of redshirt freshman Vincent Sanders, who some have felt could be a major playmaker for the Rebels. Highly-touted prospects Nickolas Brassell and Tobias Singleton are listed in the "or" situation with Ja-Mes Logan.

Junior college transfer cornerback Wesley Pendleton is listed as a starting cornerback. Big things are expected from him after a success JUCO career and a very solid spring and preseason.
Everyone is looking for the next Nick Fairley.

Everyone would love to have their own Cam Newton.

So as we look around the league at some of the newcomers from either the junior college ranks or who have transferred in from other schools, we'll try to find them.

Could Georgia noseguard John Jenkins be the beast in the middle that Fairley was? Does Barry Brunetti have what it takes to have a Newton-like impact at Ole Miss?

Here is a look at some of the new athletes around the league to keep an eye on this fall:

  • Duron Carter, WR: Carter could be a big-time playmaker for the Tide, but he has yet to enroll because of transcript issues. The former Ohio State and juco wideout is the son of star former NFL receiver Cris Carter.
  • Quinton Dial, DL: Dial could play both inside and out, but is currently getting quality reps at defensive end for Alabama. The former juco standout has made quite the impression on his head coach and he seems to be in line for a starting spot.
  • Jesse Williams, DT: Like Dial, Williams transferred in from the juco ranks in January and has also performed well in practice. He's gotten reps all around the line, but could also be in contention for one of the end spots. He's a massive lineman at 6-foot-4 and 319 pounds.
  • Alonzo Highsmith, LB: The juco transfer is an extremely athletic linebacker and has really impressed since his arrival. He stepped in at the starting weakside linebacker spot on Day 1 of preseason camp and appears to have the edge there heading into the season.
  • Robert Thomas, DT: Speaking of athleticism, the Razorbacks might have found their most athletic defensive lineman in Thomas. The juco transfer got a ton of reps this spring with Byran Jones and DeQuinta Jones out with injuries, and is currently competing for a starting spot.
  • Dan Wenger, C: He earned an extra year of eligibility after concussions cut his Notre Dame career short. He's reuniting with offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and offensive line coach Frank Verducci and is not only competing for the starting spot at center but has become a leader on the offensive line.
  • John Jenkins, DT: He was a giant gem of Georgia's 2011 class and was expected to snatch the starting noseguard position. However, the juco standout has had injury issues and hasn't been in the best shape. At 6-foot-4, and 340 pounds, people are hoping he can be a force in the middle this fall, but he's currently behind Kwame Geathers.
  • Jarvis Jones, LB: Jones transferred in from USC last year and takes over as the starting strongside linebacker. Georgia's coaches feel that with his speed and athleticism he could be a more versatile player than former stud Justin Houston.
  • Zach Mettenberger, QB: If Jordan Jefferson is indeed punished for his alleged involvement in a horrific fight outside of a Baton Rouge bar, Mettenberger's time could be now. He matches his cannon of a right arm with tremendous accuracy and might have the best skill set of any of LSU's current quarterbacks.
  • Brandon Maye, LB: Maye transferred from Clemson and with the Bulldogs looking to replace three starters at linebacker, Maye is expected to make an immediate impact at middle linebacker. He had a slow start to fall camp, but improved throughout.

  • Barry Brunetti, Randall Mackey, Zack Stoudt, QBs: All three are vying for the starting quarterback spot and all have done well since the spring. Brunetti transferred from West Virginia, while Mackey and Stoudt are former juco athletes. Brunetti has the edge at quarterback, but Mackey was on top this spring and won't make things easy for the sophomore. Stoudt isn't as athletic as the other two, but has been very sharp with his passing ability.
  • Uriah Grant, Gilbert Pena, DT: Both players were brought in to add some beef in the middle of Ole Miss' line and both could end up starters for opening day. Both have dealt with injuries, but that really hasn't slowed their on-field production in practice.
  • Wesley Pendleton, CB: Pendleton had an impressive juco career and has really caught on in Ole Miss' defense. He's in the thick of it for one of the starting cornerback spots and has shown that he might be the Rebels' most athletic defensive back.
  • Alex Bullard, OG: He transferred from Notre Dame and was granted a hardship in order to play this fall. Bullard has moved all along the line this preseason, but it looks like he could be in the running for one of the starting guard positions.
  • Maurice Couch, DT: A lot is expected from Couch, who hopes to fill one of the spots in the middle of Tennessee's line. It hasn't been an easy preseason for Couch, who suffers from asthma, but he has made improvements. He'll contribute at noseguard and the three technique this fall.
  • Izauea Lanier, CB: Though he made his mark playing safety in junior college, Lanier is competing for time at corner. At 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, he's a bigger corner, which coach Derek Dooley likes.
  • Byron Moore, DB: Moore appears to be a "tweener" on defense. He could play safety or corner for the Vols. With Tennessee running a lot of nickel formations, Moore should see the field in some capacity this fall.
  • Jordan Rodgers, QB: Rodgers missed the 2010 season and missed the spring while recovering from shoulder surgery, but is No. 2 at quarterback. The younger brother to Super Bowl champ Aaron Rodgers, Jordan Rodgers is a player coach James Franklin has been especially excited about seeing.

Coaching 'em up: Ole Miss

June, 30, 2011
We take a closer look today at a key member of Ole Miss' staff.

Coach: Tyrone Nix

Position: Defensive coordinator and linebackers

Experience: He's entering his fourth season on the Ole Miss staff and was promoted to assistant head coach in January 2010. Prior to coming to Oxford, Nix was the defensive coordinator at South Carolina for three seasons from 2005-07 under Steve Spurrier. Nix spent 10 years on the Southern Miss staff from 1995-2004 and coached every position on defense. During his final four seasons at Southern Miss, he was the Golden Eagles' defensive coordinator. Ole Miss has finished among the top 20 teams nationally in tackles for loss all three of Nix's seasons as defensive coordinator.

Of note: The Rebels have generated more than 30 sacks in each of Nix's three seasons as defensive coordinator. They finished with 31 last season, 36 in 2009 and 39 in 2008. ... Nix, 38, got his first job as a defensive coordinator in 2001 at Southern Miss when he was just 29, making him the youngest Division I-A defensive coordinator in the country. ... In 2003, Nix was a finalist for the Broyles Award, which is given annually to the nation's top assistant coach. ... He played collegiately at Southern Miss from 1990-93 and was a standout linebacker. He was inducted in 2003 into the Southern Miss M-Club Hall of Fame. ... Former Florida coach Urban Meyer tried to hire Nix as the Gators' defensive coordinator when Charlie Strong took the head coaching job at Louisville following the 2009 season, but Nix stayed put at Ole Miss and received a hefty raise. He made $500,000 last season and will earn $550,000 in 2011.

His challenge: The Ole Miss defense took it on the chin last season, finishing 11th in the SEC in total defense and giving up just under 400 yards per game. Not much went right for Nix and the Rebels' defense, which was decimated by injuries and inexperience in the secondary. The Rebels gave up 24 touchdown passes and intercepted only six passes. Nix's first order of business in 2011 is seeing to it that his team rekindles that same edge and attacking, aggressive style that epitomized the 2008 and 2009 Ole Miss defensive units. Somewhere along the way, the Rebels lost that edge a year ago. And as linebackers coach, Nix faces a major rebuilding task. His top returning defender, junior D.T. Shackelford, tore up his knee in the spring and isn't expected back this season. Shackelford was the Rebels' weak side linebacker and also lined up some at defensive end. If that's not enough, sophomore linebacker Clarence Jackson was kicked off the team in May following his second arrest in nine months. Jackson ended the spring as the starter at weak side linebacker. The Rebels had already lost a pair of senior starters at linebacker from a year ago -- Jonathan Cornell and Allen Walker. Nix is high on sophomore Mike Marry and junior Joel Kight, but there's not much in the way of proven depth at linebacker. Incoming true freshman C.J. Johnson will almost certainly have to play right away. It helps that defensive end Kentrell Lockett was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, but he's coming off a serious knee injury. The Rebels could really use big years from a couple of junior college transfers, namely nose guard Gilbert Pena and cornerback Wesley Pendleton, and it's a defense that needs something good to happen early to help build some momentum. Last season, it was just the opposite. The bottom fell out in that season-opening 49-48 overtime loss to Jacksonville State, and it was a struggle the rest of the way for Nix's guys.
We head into high-flyer mode as we discuss defensive backs today. They are athletic as ever this season, and some teams return a bevy of secondary talent in 2011.

Here’s how the teams look:

[+] EnlargeMark Barron
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesMark Barron decided to return to Alabama instead of making himself eligible for the NFL draft.
1. Alabama: This was an area of the team that was a problem and it wasn’t so much the yardage given up but the lack of consistency, especially in big games (see the Auburn game). This year, the Tide should have one of the best defensive backfields in the country. Safety Mark Barron could have entered the NFL draft, but stayed. And while he was in a non-contact jersey this spring, he’ll be one of the top safeties around this fall. Robert Lester is another solid safety who is also making everyone’s short list of top safeties for next year’s draft. At corner, everyone knows Dre Kirkpatrick, but DeQuan Menzie could be Alabama’s best weapon in the secondary. Dee Milliner is still in the mix at corner and there is a lot of good young talent as well.

2. LSU: No Patrick Peterson? No problem. The Tigers are once again loaded in their secondary with corners Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu. Both are All-SEC material and Claiborne led the Tigers with five interceptions last season. Mathieu found a way to get to the ball often last season and both should make it tough for any quarterback to throw on LSU this fall. Sophomore Tharold Simon made strong improvements at corner this spring as well. Safety Brandon Taylor is another top player at his position and he should be fine after suffering a foot injury at the end of last season. Youngsters Eric Reid and Craig Loston look like stars in the making at safety.

3. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return five players who started at some point in 2010. Johnthan Banks, Corey Broomfield and Nickoe Whitley each recorded three interceptions and had 50-plus tackles last year. Broomfield should be the Bulldogs' top option at corner, while Banks can play both corner and safety. Charles Mitchell returns at safety and was third on the team with 93 tackles last season. All of Mississippi State’s defensive backs not only have a knack for making big plays down field but they can each play efficiently in the box.

4. Arkansas: This group is a little inexperienced, but there is a lot of talent to go around. Things start with safety Tramain Thomas. Thomas was fourth on the team in tackles last season and grabbed four interceptions. Thomas looked even better this spring, making play after play. Fellow senior Elton Ford should get time at safety, and converted corner Eric Bennett should get reps as well. Hybrid linebacker Jerico Nelson enhances the group when he drops back with the safeties and Isaac Madison returns at one of the corner spots and should team up with Darius Winston. The two have 27 career starts under their belts.

5. South Carolina: The Gamecocks’ secondary has to improve after underachieving a year ago, and South Carolina has the weapons to do it. Corner Stephon Gilmore wasn’t at his best last year, but has tremendous cover ability and speed to be tops at his position. Akeem Auguste moved from safety back to his more natural position at corner and should give the Gamecocks one of the top corner tandems in the SEC. DeVonte Holloman moved to the Spur linebacker spot, so there are still questions at safety, but D.J. Swearinger really impressed this spring and some think he’s the most gifted defensive back in Columbia. Replacing Holloman’s spot is going to be tough, and the coaches have yet to find someone to solidify that position.

6. Vanderbilt: This is the strongest part of Vanderbilt’s team. The Commodores return a heap of talent, starting with senior corner Casey Hayward, who was a second-team All-SEC pick a year ago. Hayward led the SEC with 11 pass breakups and had six interceptions. Safety Sean Richardson led the team with 98 tackles and would start on a lot of teams in the SEC. The other safety spot is occupied by Kenny Ladler, who was one of the top safeties in the league last season, even as a freshman. Junior Trey Wilson had a great spring and could move past last year’s starter Eddie Foster on the depth chart.

7. Georgia: Like most positions at Georgia, there’s no shortage of talent. However, there are still questions. Senior Brandon Boykin is solid at one of the corner spots with his natural corner instincts, great speed and is the defensive leader. Sanders Commings is talented and has the best size, but he’ll have to battle Branden Smith at the other corner spot. Smith is a total athlete, but he has to improve his coverage skills. Bacarri Rambo is solid at safety, but he needs to return to the form he had as a freshman. Finding someone to line up next to him is important. With Alec Ogletree moving to linebacker, there is a hole at safety and one of Georgia’s newcomers might have to step in this fall.

8. Florida: The Gators would have been higher on this list had it not been for the dismissal of All-SEC corner Janoris Jenkins. There’s a gaping hole at corner, and the hope is that junior Jeremy Brown can help fill it. He finally played after a severe back injury kept him out for two years, and while he struggled at times, Florida’s coaches were very impressed with his play this spring. Sophomore Cody Riggs was a pleasant surprise at corner last season and is battling unproven senior Moses Jenkins. There is nothing but youth and inexperience behind them. At safety, Matt Elam had a good spring at strong safety, while free safety wasn’t totally locked down by Josh Evans. The good news is that Florida signed six defensive backs this year.

9. Tennessee: This group could be decent, but there are so many questions. We aren’t sure if star Janzen Jackson will return after leaving school this spring. Prentiss Waggner moved from safety to corner last season, where he was an All-SEC performer, and then back to safety when Jackson left. But he might be back at corner this fall. If Waggner is a corner and there’s no Jackson, there’s an enormous hole at safety. If he stays at safety, then there’s one at corner. Fortunately, Brent Brewer, a former minor league baseball player, is a solid safety, and corner Marsalis Teague returns after converting from receiver last season. Incoming junior college transfer Byron Moore should compete immediately for time at corner.

10. Kentucky: There is a lot of experience with four senior starters returning, but the unit has to show that it can be consistent in big games. Safety/linebacker hybrid Winston Guy leads the group with his speed, strength and athleticism, and will move down into the box as the nickel linebacker. Seniors Randall Burden and Anthony Mosley are back at corner after combing for 11 pass breakups and two interceptions. Junior Martavius Neloms began the spring as the starter at corner, but could see more time at safety this fall. Mychal Bailey will line up at safety and was second behind Guy with two interceptions last season. Inexperience behind this group is still a problem.

11. Auburn: Things started off poorly when senior safety Michael McNeil was one of the four players arrested for robbery and later dismissed this spring. McNeil, who started seven games last season, was supposed to be one of the stars of the Tigers’ defense this fall. Now he’s gone and former corner Neiko Thorpe is moving over to safety. The move actually benefits the hit-first defensive back. T’Sharvan Bell is at corner and has the speed and tight cover skills to be one of the best at his position. After that, it’s a free-for-all. Incoming freshman Erique Florence should get an opportunity to come in and play immediately at safety.

12. Ole Miss: This group had to hear about how it was the goat of last season’s 4-8 campaign after allowing 246 passing yards a game. It was a motivational tool this spring, but there’s a lot of work to do. New defensive backs coach Keith Burns was pleased with the spring progress and really liked how JUCO transfer Wesley Pendleton played at corner. He’s competing to take one of those spots from either Marcus Temple, who missed spring with injury, or Charles Sawyer, who had to be pushed at times this spring. The reliable Damien Jackson is back at safety and could line up next to Brishen Mathews, who got good playing time last season, but is still unproven. JUCO transfer Ivan Nicholas and freshman Cliff Coleman will compete for time at safety and corner, respectively.

Ole Miss spring wrap

May, 12, 2011
2010 overall record: 4-8

2010 conference record: 1-7

Returning starters

Offense: 9; Defense: 5; Kicker/punter: 2

Top returners

RB Brandon Bolden, RB Jeff Scott, OT Bradley Sowell, OG Alex Washington, WR Melvin Harris, DE Kentrell Lockett, CB Marcus Temple, S Damien Jackson

Key losses

QB Jeremiah Masoli, WR Markeith Summers, DT Jerrell Powe, DT Ted Laurent, LB Jonathan Cornell, LB Allen Walker, S Johnny Brown, CB Jeremy McGee

2010 statistical leaders (* returners)

Rushing: Bolden* (976 yards)

Passing: Masoli (2,039 yards)

Receiving: Summers (575 yards)

Tackles: Cornell (80)

Sacks: D.T. Shackelford (5)

Interceptions: Charles Sawyer*, Fon Ingram (2)

Spring answers

1. Complete running game: The one sure thing in Oxford is that the Rebels will be able to lean on their running game this fall. Senior Bolden continued to impress during spring, earning the most outstanding offensive player of spring drills award, and backups Scott and Enrique Davis each had very solid springs. Scott is the slicer and dicer out of the backfield, while Bolden is a pure power runner. With Davis, Ole Miss gets a little of both. The Rebels will need everything they can churn out of the running game because inexperience is the backbone of the quarterback and wide receiver positions.

2. Offensive line strength: Making that running game even better will be a veteran offensive line. Ole Miss returns All-SEC caliber tackles Sowell and Bobby Massie and has seven players that started two or more games each on the offensive line in 2010. While there was some movement on the line this spring, the position should be one of the strengths this fall for the Rebels. Senior left guard Washington is back, while Arkansas junior transfer Matt Hall, who split time with Jared Duke, saw action last fall at right guard.

3. Legendary Lockett: The Rebels suffered a devastating blow this spring when linebacker D.T. Shackelford went down with a knee injury that will likely cost him his senior season. However, Ole Miss was fortunate enough to get senior defensive end Kentrell Lockett back, who was granted a hardship waiver by the NCAA after suffering a season-ending knee injury at the beginning of last season. Lockett was a preseason All-SEC pick a year ago and has 22.5 career tackles for loss. Lockett brings not only the presence of a relentless pass rusher to the defense but he’ll be one of the leaders of the team. The Rebels will need him as a force on the field and in the locker room this fall.

Fall questions

1. Young guns: While Ole Miss’ coaches were pretty pleased with the play of their quarterbacks this spring, the Rebels will enter fall camp with a trio of inexperienced signal callers. Redshirt junior Randall Mackey left spring with a slight edge over West Virginia transfer Barry Brunetti and junior college transfer Zack Stoudt. The good news was that Brunetti was granted a waiver by the NCAA to play immediately, but he’s got minimal experience. Mackey and Stoudt have none. Regardless of who starts, the winner will have to go through some tough growing pains this season.

2. Unproven receivers: Not making the quarterback situation any better is the fact that the Rebels have yet to find a true playmaker in the receiving corps. Offensive coordinator David Lee said during the spring that the most consistent thing his receivers were doing was dropping the ball. That improved toward the end of spring, but Ole Miss is still looking for someone to break out of the group and take hold of the position. The Rebels still have junior Melvin Harris, who was second on the team a year ago with 30 catches and 408 yards. Redshirt freshman Vincent Sanders, who had a spring game-high 96 yards on four catches, could have the most natural athleticism at the position, but will have to sure up his inconsistencies as well.

3. Defensive marks: The Rebels’ defense has a lot of question marks at the moment. The secondary improved this spring, but it is still young and the group was a major issue last fall. Lockett is back at defensive end, but, as a whole, the defensive line is still pretty green. Making matters even worse was the loss of Shackelford. There is not only a gaping hole at linebacker but Ole Miss lost the soul of its team. Replacing both aspects of what made Shackelford unique won’t be easy. The Rebels worked Mike Marry, Clarence Jackson and Ralph Williams in Shackelford’s spot, but incoming freshman C.J. Johnson could end up with the spot this year. Regardless, the defense has a ton of maturing to do this year.

Hope and concern: Ole Miss

May, 2, 2011
With a lot of questions on both sides of the ball, the Rebels are being heavily overlooked in the SEC West, but they're hoping their young talent surprises this fall:

Biggest reason for hope: Veteran offensive line and strong running game.

The player who wins the Ole Miss quarterback battle will have a solid offensive line protecting him. And that sure is a good thing, considering West Virginia transfer Barry Brunetti is the only one of the three quarterbacks competing for the job with any Football Bowl Subdivision game experience. The Rebels will field a line consisting of All-SEC candidates in tackles Bradley Sowell and Bobby Massie, and return seven players that started two or more games each on the offensive line last year. The running game should also take some pressure off the quarterback. The Rebels' runners are led by senior Brandon Bolden, who rushed for 976 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2010. He'll be backed up by home run-hitting threat Jeff Scott and the improved Enrique Davis, who combined to rush for more than 700 yards on the ground last season.

Biggest reason for concern: Uncertainty at cornerback and at receiver.

Ole Miss' pass defensive ranked 103rd nationally in 2010. The Rebels surrendered 246.3 passing yards per game and 24 touchdowns through the air. The Rebels entered the spring with only three cornerbacks having any experience, and senior Marcus Temple missed all of spring after hernia surgery. Strides were made by junior college transfer Wesley Pendleton and sophomore Charles Sawyer, who started four games in 2010. Underclassmen Cliff Coleman and Frank Crawford also impressed, but are unproven. The same can be said for the Rebels' receiving corps. Offensive coordinator David Lee said inconsistency was about the only thing his receivers were consistent at for most of spring, but saw some reasons for optimism during the latter days of practice and the spring game. Redshirt freshman Vincent Sanders will be heavily relied upon this fall to take some focus away from junior Melvin Harris on offense. Harris has the most experience after playing in 11 games last season.

Mackey a pleasant spring surprise

April, 19, 2011
Gazing onto the practice field during one of Ole Miss’ early spring sessions, new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach David Lee became perplexed by what he saw.

Yards away, a lean 6-foot-1, 190-pound quarterback was launching the ball 40, 50 and even 60 yards with pinpoint accuracy.

Confused, Lee turned to greet his gunslinger, finding a pleasant surprise.

The “abnormally accurate” hurler was junior college transfer Randall Mackey, who was named a first-team JUCO All-American over Cam Newton in 2009.

[+] EnlargeRandall Mackey
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisRandall Mackey was a bright spot this spring for Ole Miss, contributing at quarterback, running back and as a receiver.
Mackey dazzled his new coach and coordinator early, but what really impressed Lee was that through the first eight or nine practices Mackey's accuracy didn’t fade.

“At first I would say he has a long arm,” Lee said. “Now I say he’s still doing this. Basically, the first two-thirds of practice he created more big plays either running or throwing than any of our other quarterbacks.”

And with that, the former East Mississippi Community College standout consumed Ole Miss headlines.

When he wasn't throwing over defenders, he was running past them, becoming a serious contender for the starting quarterback spot that seemed likely to go to senior Nathan Stanley if he stayed consistent this spring.

However, it was Mackey who had early success with Ole Miss’ new offensive system and it was Stanley who eventually fell behind and left the program earlier this month.

Sure, there were -- and still are -- hiccups for Mackey. While his athleticism and passing skills wowed early on, he struggled with getting his signal-calling down and found himself nose deep in his playbook away from the practice field.

He also has had to deal with a speech impediment that has plagued him throughout his life. It was something he didn’t worry about until he got to Oxford.

It was uncomfortable to work through, but after continuously reciting plays with Lee and head coach Houston Nutt, Mackey said his speech became less of an issue toward the latter parts of spring, which enhanced his progress.

“Right now, I feel like I’m on the right track, so it’s going good,” Mackey said.

“I came a long way from last year. My teammates really like the work I’ve been doing and the coaches like the work I’ve been doing. I want to help my teammates out and help this program win.”

During the Rebels’ spring game, Mackey showed his progress by leading a Red team comeback, going 9-of-18 passing for 151 yards, a touchdown and an interception in a 17-17 tie.

Mackey said his spring development came from countless hours of studying and working with Lee and the work he put in at junior college. Arriving at East Mississippi as a scrawny, 170-pound prospect, Mackey bulked up close to the weight he is now and really started learning about making reads in the spread offense.

“My first junior college game was against Randall Mackey,” cornerback Wesley Pendleton said. “When I played against him all I heard was, ‘Randall Mackey, Randall Mackey.’ When I first got here I was like, ‘OK, I have to do what I have to do against Randall Mackey, one of the best that ever played in junior college.’ Whenever I make a play on him it makes me feel better.”

Mackey exits spring in quite the battle. Fellow juco transfer Zack Stoudt, who Lee said caught on to the new passing scheme the fastest, and West Virginia transfer Barry Brunetti, who might have the best tools of the three, are right with Mackey for the starting spot.

Mackey separated himself from the rest of the quarterbacks for most of the spring, but now sees a tight race that he doesn’t anticipate being settled until sometime during fall workouts.

Lee said finding a quarterback isn’t an immediate priority. He wants to see what happens after his players continue to digest the offense over the summer before any decision is made.

“I’m not in a hurry,” he said. “Who cares when we name a quarterback? I’m not concerned about who that is right now as much as teaching them [the offense] a second time and seeing who takes it and runs with it.”

Exiting the spring: Ole Miss

April, 15, 2011
Spring game: 2 p.m. ET

Questions answered: The Rebels’ running game should be solid this fall. Work horse Brandon Bolden didn’t miss a beat before suffering an ankle injury during one of the scrimmages. The injury doesn’t seem to be serious, which is a good sign. He’s gotten some help from speedster Jeff Scott and Enrique Davis. Davis appears to be having his best spring. The offensive line will also be one of Ole Miss’ strengths. With All-SEC candidates in tackles Bradley Sowell and Bobby Massie, the Rebels return seven players that started two or more games each on the offensive line last year.

Questions unanswered: Ole Miss entered spring with a massive quarterback battle and will end it that way. With senior Nathan Stanley abruptly leaving the program, Randall Mackey, Zack Stoudt and Barry Brunetti will look to put on a show in Saturday’s spring game. Mackey made the most progress, taking the lead at the position, but word out of Oxford is that Brunetti might have the best set of tools, but has yet to be granted a waiver by the NCAA to be eligible to play this fall after transferring from West Virginia in January. Stoudt might not have the speed, but he could have the best arm. The wide receiver position still seems to be very inconsistent. Playmakers haven’t been found, which doesn’t help the inexperience at quarterback. Junior Melvin Harris has the most experience, but even he has been shaky at times. The secondary is still a concern for the Rebels as well. Only three cornerbacks entered spring with experience, but Marcus Temple missed all of spring after hernia surgery.

Spring stars: Mackey really impressed this spring. The former junior college standout has great wheels for a quarterback, but has also shown tremendous arm strength. He’s overcoming a speech impediment to become a real leader for the Rebels. Corner Wesley Pendleton also came from the JUCO ranks and while he’s still pretty raw, he’s had a solid spring. He’s got great speed and athleticism, which helps him overcome some of his coverage mistakes. Fellow corner Charles Sawyer has also made strong improvements after being benched earlier in the spring. Linebacker Mike Marry had a pretty successful spring for the Rebels.

Of note: The most crushing news of the spring came when linebacker -- and defensive leader -- D.T. Shackelford suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his knee this spring. He’s likely done for the year, leaving a gigantic hole on Ole Miss’ team. … Defensive end Kentrell Lockett (knee) was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA and while he didn’t practice this spring he will be back this fall. … Junior linebacker Joel Kight underwent surgery to repair a meniscus tear, but should be fine for the fall. ... Cornerback Julian Whitehead left the team before spring for personal issues. … Offensive lineman Michael Brown missed spring with a disc issue in his back. … Defensive end Gerald Rivers is out with a knee injury.
It didn’t take long for Wesley Pendleton to realize he was no longer in the minor leagues.

Ole Miss’ junior cornerback spent his fall blanketing receivers in the junior college ranks. The former Copiah-Lincoln CC, Miss., standout didn’t have a problem getting through practices and games.

Life wasn’t easy, but it was a lot smoother than what he experienced in his first day of spring camp at an SEC school.

“The first day of workouts, I thought I was ready to go home,” Pendleton said.

“I thought it was going to be faster and harder, but not like this.”

He was ready to leave because his body wasn’t used to the fast pace nature of practice. He wasn’t used to running from drill to drill and going through play after play. His conditioning stank and it didn’t help that he didn’t know the defensive plays his new coaches were throwing at him. He didn’t feel up to going through the rest of practice let alone another day of it.

But Pendleton didn’t quit. His coaches wouldn’t let him and his buddies back at Copiah-Lincoln wouldn’t either. Some tough love from secondary coach Keith Burns helped him realize that if he wanted to advance his playing career, he had to get through the riggers of big school practice.

His old JUCO buddies told him to keep his head up and to think about how he made it to the SEC.

With some extra help from the trainers, who aided in maintaining a healthier standard of living and better workout habits, Pendleton trudged through the next few practices. There was no magical transformation, but Pendleton said things started to click shortly after the first week of practice.

At a position desperate for help, Pendleton has provided a recent spark for the defensive backfield and Burns, who had admits he had no real expectations of Pendleton before spring, said he’s been pleasantly surprised with his progress.

“Wesley is a guy that I heard nothing of good things about and he’s done nothing but impress me,” Burns said.

“A lot of corners can cover, but not a lot can come out of nowhere and make a play. There’s been times this spring where it looks like, ‘Oh, here were go. They’re going to hit the long ball on us,’ and he covers ground and makes a play from nowhere.”

With only three cornerbacks entering the spring with any real field experience with the Rebels -- one being senior Marcus Temple who was already out for the spring after undergoing surgery for a sports hernia -- Pendleton said he’s working that much harder to make sure he contributes this fall.

Strong pushes from sophomore Charles Sawyer, who started four games in 2010, and youngsters Cliff Coleman and Frank Crawford, are helping elevate his work habits.

There’s still growing to do for Pendleton, who bails out his raw coverage skills with keen instinct and athleticism. He knows he’s a work in progress and with the spring game looming Saturday, there’s more he can learn.

What he’s proud of is the progress he’s made since his first few stumbles with his new program. Pendleton said he feels comfortable enough that he's even giving his old JUCO friends pointers from what he's learned from spring.

Pendleton’s got the confidence now, and he intends for it to bleed over into summer and fall workouts.

“It’s my time to make plays,” he said, “and I think I’ve been doing it.”
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.”



Thursday, 9/18
Saturday, 9/20