Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Ole Miss Football Preview: Defensive Line

Overview: Last season, the defensive line entered the fall with question marks both in the starting rotation and with substantial depth. A unit that was thrown into the fire early embraced the opportunity to grow and blossomed into one of the most reliable groups as the season progressed.

This year, the line will be looked upon to anchor a defense that lacks marquee names. Marcus Tillman and Greg Hardy became players for foes to beware through the extent of last season, and those bookends could team with senior Jeremy Garrett and junior Peria Jerry to form an impressive front four. Their maturation as a group over the course of the spring and summer is vital to the defense as camp opens in August.

Defensive line coach Ryan Nielsen is tasked with finding depth, and he has a collection of contributors, many of which with starting experience, in seniors Brandon Jenkins and Viciente DeLoach, junior Chris Bowers, sophomore Daverin Geralds and freshman Kentrell Lockett.

A first team Freshman All-American, Tillman flourished in his rookie season, splitting starts at both defensive tackle (6) and defensive end (5). Defensive Coordinator John Thompson has stated that he was one of the most consistent players in the spring and can be seen around the locker room or film room religiously.

Recording four tackles, 2.5 TFLs, 1.5 sacks and one forced fumble in the spring game, Tillman continues to display the ability to be a consistent force in the trenches for the Rebels.

A native of Meadville, Miss., Tillman packed on some pounds over the offseason without compromising his speed. He is a rare combination of size, speed and athleticism and has an uncanny knowledge for his position. With a combination of both power and finesse, Tillman could cement himself as a perennial playmaker for years to come.

Hardy also earned Freshman All-America honors in 2006 and became a fan favorite due to his ability to terrorize quarterbacks and his TD catch as a wide receiver against rival Mississippi State. Hardy is a multi-talented athlete who made appearances in all 12 games and started nine at defensive end.

Hardy recorded six tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble in the Red-Blue game, despite missing a fraction of spring drills while playing power forward for the Ole Miss basketball team.

Jerry battled through injuries to appear in eight games, making six starts along the defensive line last season. He earned starts at end, tackle and nose tackle and will be a fixture up front once healthy. A physical specimen at 6-foot-2, 300 pounds, Jerry has showed flashes of dominance in practice, but has yet to play a full season without injury. His contributions in the fall are essential for the success of the defense.

At 6-foot-1, 290 pounds, Garrett appeared in six games last season starting three at nose tackle. With three letters on his resume, Garrett will have to shoulder leadership responsibility and hold down the middle of the defensive line due to a lack of depth inside.

Jenkins is also a senior with three letters and played in all 12 games last season, making seven starts. Coming on strong throughout the duration of 2007, Jenkins tied for seventh in the SEC with two fumbles recovered. The 6-4, 300-pounder will have the opportunity to be an integral piece of the group in the fall.

Bowers started five games at end last season and DeLoach started three, providing the Rebels with further experience up front.

Lockett was redshirted last season but came on strong in the spring, collecting eight tackles, 2.0 TFLs, one QB sack and one forced fumble in the spring game. Although not up to the desired size for the position, Lockett has tremendous upside and will contribute in the future as he continues to mature.

Returning Starters: Marcus Tillman, Greg Hardy, Peria Jerry, Brandon Jenkins

Other Key Returnees: Jeremy Garrett, Kentrell Lockett, Viciente DeLoach, Chris Bowers, Daverin Geralds, Cecil Frison, LaMark Armour

Key Signees: Ted Laurent, Lawon Scott, Justin Sanders

Key Losses: none


Sophomore Marcus Tillman

On the line’s progress since last season:

“We are much better than we were last year. We have more depth, and we are all on the same page. We’re all hungry and can’t wait to go out and make plays.”

On his own progression over the last year:

“Last year I was trying to learn, but this year I understand everything and I know how it looks. I’ve experienced a lot which has helped me out as I prepare for next season.”

On his outlook of the defense for next season:

“I think (the line) is going to lead the defense next year. As a whole, we have the potential to be better than last year. If you have a good defensive line, it makes it harder for the opposing offense both in the passing game and in the running game. I think it will help us overall next season.”

On the leaders of the group:

“There are so many guys that lead our group. Jeremy Garrett and Brandon Jenkins have led us since I arrived on campus, giving us little tips and helping us along the way. It is hard for the coaches to give the players everything they need, because we are the ones that have to do it. The older guys have experienced more and know things that you can’t just teach. It has helped a lot.”

Defensive Line coach Ryan Nielsen

On the progress that has been made so far:

“You can see how the guys have matured physically, they are getting a lot bigger and they look stronger. It is going to be an exciting year. I think we will have a very good defensive line.”

On Marcus Tillman:

“Marcus (Tillman) is around 268, and he looks really big. I’m expecting him to have a good season. He has become one of our leaders not only on the defensive line, but the whole field. When we needed someone to make a play in the spring, Marcus would go out and make that play. He has come along just as we had expected, and we expect him to have a big year this year.”

On the experience gained from last season:

“We have a lot of experience now. A lot of guys have played in a lot of football games. With the incoming group of freshmen, we will have a real good mix of youth and guys with some experience.”

On Jeremy Garrett as the leader of the defensive line:

“Jeremy leads the group and has played in a lot of games. Everybody looks to Jeremy to make sure everyone is doing the right thing, and it has been good for him.”

Final Analysis: The most experienced unit on the defensive side, the D line may have holes to fill in the rotation but has some solid force in the starting lineup.

Marcus Tillman progressed significantly last season and continues to do so throughout the offseason. With experience, desire and a wealth of athletic ability, Tillman could be a dominant playmaker and the Rebels’ next big star on the defensive side.

Greg Hardy is an incredible athlete who is adaptable to whatever position he is most needed. Maturing at an accelerated rate last season, Hardy could be poised for a break-out year, going from heralded freshmen to game-changer.

Defensive Coordinator John Thompson and line coach Ryan Nielsen have numerous players that could see time on the line next fall. A group that was inexperienced headed into last season will be much improved and has the potential to emerge as the strength of the defense, depending on the overall progress made and depth secured leading up to Memphis on September 1.

Kasson Gabbard Shines in Red Sox Win

It may not be the best way to measure Kason Gabbard's progress with the Red Sox -- last night's 4-0, three-hit, complete-game win over the Kansas City Royals is a better barometer -- but it's the funniest.

Gabbard was the guy, you may recall, that Terry Francona encountered in a Fort Myers eatery in spring training a year ago, belatedly determined that he was a player, and sent over a beer and a apology when he figured out who he was.

"When he first came up," Francona said yesterday, "he didn't say two words. That's not necessarily bad. Now that he's been around a little bit, you at least get a hello out of him and a smile."

A quiet guy, or just shy in his current environment?

"When he retires," Francona said, "I don't think he's going to start doing the Johnny Carson show , but it looks to me like he's comfortable in his skin."

Box score

The Sox clubhouse was a stress-free comfort zone for all parties last night after three home runs and rookie Gabbard's mistake-free pitching -- he went to only one three-ball count all night, on his only walk of the game -- made fast work of the Royals, who tend to be taken lightly but last August knocked the Sox akimbo with a three-game sweep in Kansas City before the Yankees finished them off in the better-remembered, five-game massacre.

Gabbard allowed just three hits -- singles by Emil Brown in the fifth and seventh and by pinch hitter Reggie Sanders in the eighth -- in pitching the third complete game of the season by a Sox pitcher, earning him a standing ovation from a crowd of 37,099 sent home in a tidy 2 hours 18 minutes. The others were by Daisuke Matsuzaka and Curt Schilling, whose place Gabbard has done more than just keep warm in the Sox rotation.

Schilling was the major newsmaker before the game, the Sox announcing after he threw two simulated innings that he'll go out on a rehab start Saturday in Pawtucket, with another five days later for the PawSox in Toledo. But he was (happily) upstaged last night by Gabbard, who said he'll worry about the future when it gets here. "My next start is Saturday," he said. "I'll prepare for that. I'll do what they tell me to do. I'm not going to worry about it."

Last night, he preferred to savor the first complete game of his professional life.

"The only one I think I threw was in high school," said the 25-year-old lefthander, who grew up near Palm Beach, Fla., and was a draft-and-follow sign by the Sox out of Indian River Community College in Florida.
Gabbard was supported by solo home runs in the fourth inning by Dustin Pedroia (No. 4) and Manny Ramírez (No. 13), and a two-run home run by David Ortiz (after a Pedroia single), his 16th, in the sixth. It was the fourth time this season that Ramírez and Ortiz have homered in the same game, but the first time in the Fens.

Pedroia, who was given a day off Sunday, also made the night's biggest defensive play, charging Tony Pena Jr.'s bases-loaded chopper over the mound, and throwing out the swift son of the former Sox catcher by an eyelash to end the fifth. The Royals, who did not have a hit until Brown grounded a single through the right side with one out in the fifth, had loaded the bases when Gabbard walked the next batter, Esteban German, then hit John Buck in the ribs with a 1-and-2 pitch with two out.

In his first outing as Schilling's replacement, June 26 in Seattle, Gabbard had attempted to field a similar chopper, by Ichiro Suzuki, only to have the ball tick off his glove. "I wasn't going to let that happen again," Gabbard said, "I knew that Petey [Pedroia] and Julio [Lugo] were pretty quick at getting to those balls, so whatever happened, that was it."

Gabbard became the first Sox rookie to throw a nine-inning shutout since Paul Quantrill July 4, 1993 at Seattle. He is the first Sox rookie since Roger Clemens July 26, 1984, to throw a nine-inning shutout at Fenway, and the first lefty rookie to spin a shutout at Fenway since Roger Moret Sept. 24, 1971.

Not bad for a kid who had three arthroscopic surgeries on his left elbow four years ago, doctors moving the ulnar nerve.

"I think you have to remember this is a kid who faced a lot of roadblocks coming up through the minor leagues," Francona said when asked why Gabbard did not arrive with the same fanfare as other Sox prospects before him.

Gabbard said the surgeries cost him some velocity on his fastball, but may have helped him focus on making his off-speed pitches -- changeups to righthanded hitters, curveballs to lefties -- even more effective. The swings and misses last night came with regularity, as he outdueled Royals rookie Brian Bannister, named the AL's Rookie Pitcher of the Month in June, beating out Daisuke Matsuzaka among others, by going 5-1 with a 2.75 ERA in six starts.

Bannister was cruising until Pedroia's fly ball landed in the Monster Seats to give the Sox a 1-0 lead. Two batters later, Ramírez, who has driven in eight runs in five games since the break, drove a ball over the Wall in left-center. In the sixth, Ortiz launched a full-count fastball into the seats near the Pesky Pole to account for the rest of the scoring.

Gabbard, who wound up throwing 107 pitches, said he knew he'd get a chance to go the distance when no one came over to talk to him in the eighth. Maybe they just didn't think he was the type to have a conversation.

"I'm playing in my seventh year," he said when told that Francona said he didn't see Ed McMahon in his future. "You've got to give respect to the guys who have put their time in. I joke around. In Triple A, I was a loudmouth."

From Gabbard, that's probably a relative term. But this much is certain: Francona won't have any trouble recognizing him in the future

Monday, July 16, 2007

Ole MIss Football: Offensive Line Preview

Overview: Propelling a running attack that featured the third 1,000-yard rusher in Ole Miss history in BenJarvus Green-Ellis, the offensive line made significant strides last season which carried over into a very productive spring.

So impressed with the maturation of the front five, head coach Ed Orgeron consistently praised the unit and referred to the group as the strength of the team following the conclusion of spring practice.

Art Kehoe continues to show why he is often considered the best offensive line coach in the country, with his ability to get the most out of his players and put them in the best possible position to succeed. A great motivator, Kehoe has taken this unit from a group of discontinuity before his arrival to the muscle of the team heading into 2007.

Returning four starters from last year’s group, the O line enters the fall with a wealth of experience and quality depth to lead the Rebel offense. Headlining the corps is junior Michael Oher, a preseason All-American who has been a fixture on the line since his freshmen year. Having started 22 consecutive games over the last two seasons, Oher is one of the most athletic players on the team, displaying incredible durability and quickness at left tackle.

A native of Memphis, Oher earned second team All-SEC honors from the leagues coaches as a tackle while playing in that spot for the first time. Gaining knowledge of the position and polishing his physical attributes in the spring, Oher has NFL potential and will look to prove that this season.

An obvious physical specimen at 6-foot-5, 340 pounds, John Jerry exploded onto the scene early, becoming a starter the minute he stepped on campus. The South Panola product started all 12 contests at right guard earning Freshman All-America honors from numerous media outlets. Combined with superior power and size, Jerry led the team with 26 “pancake blocks”.

Brought into the fold early, Jerry was one of the more dominant players last season and worked diligently to improve his consistency along the line of scrimmage in the spring. With the sky being the limit on his potential, Jerry could shine as a principal piece in the trenches this fall.

Establishing himself as a core leader for the squad, Corey Actis started all 12 games at center in his first year with the Rebels and was a consistent performer in the spring. The 6-foot-5, 290 pound senior has provided a vocal presence that has been instrumental in the growth in communication along the front.

A pleasant surprise in 2006, Maurice Miller appeared in 11-of-12 games last season, starting seven at right tackle. Adding bulk to his already large frame, Miller progressed substantially last season and took that momentum into the spring. Improving his mobility and footwork, Miller should continue to progress as a viable option at tackle.

The lone question mark heading into spring drills was the replacement of senior staple Andrew Wicker. With the emergence of Reid Neely at left guard, Orgeron might have found his man.

Appearing in 10 games in 2006, Neely earned his first letter and provided the unit with a potential candidate beside Oher on the left side. Grasping the position early in the spring, the 6-foot-6, 300 pounder never surrendered the starting spot and finds himself atop the depth chart heading into camp. His maturation in the spring contributed to the line picking up were it left off following last season.

Fifth-year Rebel Darryl Harris appeared in and started the first three games of the season at right tackle but missed the final nine contests with a knee injury. With three letters, 13 career starts and experience at guard, center and tackle, Harris provides quality depth, veteran play and valuable versatility along the line.

Fellow senior Thomas Eckers saw action in five games with one start at left guard last season. He has also shown the ability to play center as he battled with Actis last spring before surrendering the spot in the season opener. As with Harris, Eckers brings quality depth in numerous areas.

Returning Starters: Michael Oher, John Jerry, Corey Actis, Maurice Miller

Other Key Returnees: Reid Neely, Darryl Harris, Thomas Eckers, Marcus Cohen

Key Signees: Mark Jean-Louis, Rishaw Johnson, Bradley Sowell, Alex Washington

Key Losses: Andrew Wicker

Quotable: junior Michael Oher

On the progress made this summer:

“In the spring, you are not going to be in as good of shape as you were in the fall, but Coach (Aaron) Ausmus has done a good job of switching up the workouts since last summer which has gotten us in much better shape. I think we are in much better shape this year than we were last year.”

On the development of communication along the offensive line:

“Our communication has gotten a lot better in the spring from the fall. We work on our communication every day, and you could tell we were a better unit in the spring than the fall.”

On the majority of the line returning:

“Having the core group of guys back from last year has helped out a lot. Last year we went into the season with different guys than the year before, so having the same guys has helped us grow together and communicate better.”

On the depth being built:

“Our second group is performing well and the freshmen coming in are pretty good. They’re athletic. We have pretty good depth behind us which will help us this season.”

On what he hopes to improve on this season:

“I need to improve on my finishing. I have to get better at finishing plays, which comes with being in better shape and going hard every play.”

On the expectations for the line this season:

“I think we are pretty good across the board. Coach Kehoe is a tremendous coach and has helped out a lot. With the depth we have, I think we can be really good this year.”

Final Analysis: The strength of the Rebels entering the 2007 season, the offensive line returns four starters and a variety of players that have either started or gained valuable playing time throughout their careers.

Michael Oher has received an abundance of accolades during his tenure, and those accomplishments should continue in his junior campaign. A gifted athlete, Oher could have a remarkable season, making him a household name for coaches across the nation.

John Jerry is poised for a break-out year at right guard following his tremendous freshman season in 2007. Stocked with great physical strength and passion, Jerry should be a fixture along the offensive line for years to come.

Corey Actis is a blue-collar veteran that provides much needed leadership in the middle of the offensive line. His growth as a leader over the past year has helped tremendously with the continuity of the line through last fall and spring.

Coupled with youth and experience, offensive coordinator Dan Werner and line coach Art Kehoe have plenty of ammunition to place a heady group of lineman on the field in 2007. The incoming bodies will provide the Rebels with even more depth in one of the strongest units in recent years.

45 Days Until Tiger Footaball Season

It has been six months and 14 days since LSU defeated Notre Dame in the Sugar bowl, but it feels like it has been much longer. The good news is we only have 45 days to wait for the start of the 2007 season.

For the actual football team, the season starts on August 03 when the team reports for Fall practice. It appears at this time that the team will be in great health to start Fall practice. Will Arnold and Keith Zinger missed the 2006 season because of Arnold's knee injury and Zinger's stomach illness, but both will report to Fall practice at near 100 percent health. Charles Alexander and Ryan Miller each missed part of last season because of injuries but should be ready to go full speed when Fall practice begins.

LSU returns a veteran team on both offense and defense, but the team is still considered a young team in my opinion with only six seniors on offense and six seniors on defense in the two-deep depth chart. The seniors on my two-deep depth chart on offense, which is not official, are Matt Flynn, Jacob Hester, Early Doucet, Will Arnold, Keith Zinger and Carnell Stewart. I guess that one could make a case for Alley Broussard and Mit Cole on the two-deep depth chart. The seniors on the two-deep depth chart on defense are Glenn Dorsey, Ali Highsmith, Luke Sanders, Jonathan Zenon, Chevis Jackson and Craig Steltz. Defensive Tyson Jackson will only be a junior in the 2007 season but is projected to be a first round draft pick and, in my opinion, will likely go pro. I really like this LSU football team and the good news is that the 2008 team will be just as talented, and if recruiting continues to go well LSU will be very good for a long time.

Plenty hits, no Runs in Sox Loss to Bluejays

When Kevin Youkilis walked away from the plate, his hands held skyward, one still clutching his bat, his face was a mask of ire. He had just struck out swinging for the second out of the eighth inning, leaving a man on first base with his team down by one run. He was not alone in his anger.

Not that they were all strikeouts. There were fly outs and ground outs and double-play balls, a bunt that resulted in an out at third, a man thrown out at the plate. There was also only one run scored by the Red Sox on an afternoon Josh Beckett contained the Blue Jays, all culminating in a 2-1 loss that gave Toronto a split of the four-game series at Fenway Park and trimmed Boston's American League East lead to single digits for the first time in more than two weeks.

"I don't know if the word is frustrating," Julio Lugo said. "We just didn't put our hits together. We hit the ball. We didn't come out with the hits with men on base. They just beat us."

The Blue Jays sent Beckett to just his third defeat of the season, although the All-Star righthander lowered his ERA from 3.44 to 3.35 with eight innings of seven-hit, eight-strikeout baseball before 36,301.

"He pitched so well," manager Terry Francona said. "Other than [a two-run second inning], he was tremendous. Most nights we're sitting here saying, 'Well, it was a couple bad pitches early in the game and it was overall a great game.' But when you score one, it ends up being one too many [for them]."

With the wind shaking the flagpole and the players, and rain seemingly imminent in the late innings, the Sox failed to capitalize on 13 base runners (11 hits, one walk, one fielder's choice), watching their most encouraging chance obliterated when David Ortiz rumbled into home plate and an out to end the sixth.

Toronto rookie starter Jesse Litsch was working on a shutout when Alex Cora hit a leadoff double to center. Right fielder Alex Rios then dived late for an Ortiz wind-aided ball that scored Cora. Rios appeared to be in position to make the catch before the wind played with it, the miss coming one day after Vernon Wells misplayed a Coco Crisp liner into a triple and Rios missed an Ortiz shot that bounced into the right-field stands for a double.

With one out, Youkilis walked, putting runners on first and second. Catcher Jason Phillips then made a twisting, not particularly graceful catch on a foul pop that Mike Lowell thought he had hit into the stands. But the wind brought it back into play. Eric Hinske, playing for the injured J.D. Drew, proceeded to single to right field. That was when Ortiz made his dash toward home, and when Rios redeemed himself.

"It's two outs," Ortiz said. "You've got to try. I didn't know that guy [Rios] had a cannon. What if he made a bad throw? You've got to take your chances, especially against a guy that's been throwing the ball good."

Ortiz was referring to Litsch, whose major league debut May 15 resulted in 8 2/3 innings of four-hit, one-run baseball against the Orioles. And, despite having lost each of his last three decisions, Litsch managed to work out of trouble. Not all of the Sox players were overly impressed with his offerings, but they had to give him credit for extricating himself from some messy situations.

Such as second- and third-inning double plays, the latter the more confounding for the Sox. After Lugo and Crisp singled leading off, Alex Cora (who also committed an error in the fourth) bunted down the third base line. But Litsch cleaned it up, throwing to third for the force out. That was followed by Ortiz grounding into a 1-6-3 double play.

"He was mixing his pitches," Lugo said. "I didn't think he had nothing special. They were just throwing strikes and mixing his pitches. He made some big pitches when he needed to."

Beckett's only hiccup came with two outs in the second. Lyle Overbay doubled to the center-field triangle and scored on an Aaron Hill double to left. Royce Clayton then singled to right field to score Hill. That was enough for Toronto.

"I was the second-best pitcher today," Beckett said. "Bottom line: get out pitched, you lose. And that's what happened today."

In the end, his offense couldn't get the runners in. They were on base. They just didn't cross the plate.

"We got our chances," Cora said. "We didn't take advantage of them."