With the temperature only reaching close to 90 degrees and winds shifting out of the north, it felt more like springtime than the dog days of summer Friday, but on the practice fields adjacent to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium the action heated up as the Ole Miss football team put on pads for the first time in preseason camp.
“We got a break in the weather, and had a really good practice,” said first-year head coach Houston Nutt. “I was hoping for a little hotter weather, but I am sure we’ll get it. The guys bounced around and moved around good. We had a good practice overall. I am looking forward to tomorrow. We’ll have about a 30 or 40 minute practice and then we’ll go inside the stadium for a 100-play scrimmage.”
With a couple of players out on the defensive line, freshman Justin Smith of Alpharetta, Ga., got a chance to show the coaches what he can do, and Nutt was pleased.
“Justin is really coming on,” Nutt said. “I like what he is doing. He’s intelligent, he’s committed and he runs to the ball. He may go the wrong way or line up wrong sometimes, but not very often. He’s physical for a freshman, and he’s not afraid to mix it up with the big linemen. I’ve been really proud of him.”
Nutt also praised the other side of the ball, talking about the improvement of the offensive line and the running game as well as first-year quarterback Jevan Snead.
“That group has stepped forward.” he noted. John Jerry had a good day, Michael Oher probably had his best day and then you have Daverin (Geralds) and Maurice Miller. Darryl Harris has probably been our best guy, if you had to pick one.
“Jevan had his best day today. He was on target today. He had good protection, and the receivers caught some good balls.
Saturday, the Rebels will scrimmage for the first time this season. Practice will start at 11 a.m. on the practice fields, before moving inside the stadium for the scrimmage. Nutt talked about what they hope to see from the team in their first scrimmage.
“I want to see a very physical team,” he said. “I want to see our secondary tackle and play the ball. I want to see some of our guards and tackles (especially in the second group), what they do offensively.
“We have young running backs. I want to see what they do with the helmets coming after them, because they’ve looked real good in shorts when they know they’re not being tackled. We’ve got three talented running backs. They are very good. They raise the level of play in Cordera (Eason) and Derrick (Davis). You’re not afraid to hand them the ball. They can handle it. It’s going to be interesting.”
Afternoon showers forced the Rebel football team indoors for Thursday’s practice, but the weather didn’t dampen the players’ morale.
Following their stretching routine, the players huddled at mid-field and formed a ring around coach Houston Nutt. Through the crowd of Rebels, fans could only see a wide-brim hat sticking up from the middle of the huddle as, one-by-one, a defensive and offensive player were called to the center. When Nutt blew the whistle, their shoulder pads violently collided. Players and coaches yelled and jumped up and down with excitement, slapping the helmet of whichever player won the battle.
Then practice started.
As players went through individual position drills, seven-on-seven passing drills, offensive line/defensive line battles and eventually 11-on-11 plays, Nutt prowled the field with a watchful eye.
“We had a good practice today. We really got better,” Nutt said. “I thought our offense really responded from yesterday, really picked up some things. Jevan (Snead) threw the ball well today. Receivers ran some good routes, and the offensive line did a much better job.
“Tomorrow is the first day of full pads, so now here comes the grind. Here comes the physical part of it.”
Offensive line solid
With Reid Neely out with a strained Achilles tendon, Darryl Harris stepped in to fill the left guard position, and John Jerry is now working at right tackle. Currently, the starting offensive line from left to right is Michael Oher, Harris, Daverin Geralds, Maurice Miller and Jerry.
“That’s a pretty good five,” Nutt said. “I know Reid doesn’t like being out when he sees those guys practice like that. That was a good group today. We’ll see if they can come back and do it again tomorrow.”
On the other side of the ball, defensive end Greg Hardy was forced to watch his teammates, who continue to impress Nutt, from the stationary bike due to a bruised foot.
“The defensive line was very good,” Nutt said. “When they got their motor running and their pad level where it’s supposed to be they’re hard to stop now.”
McCluster, Wallace impress
Wide receiver and everything-man Dexter McCluster continued to be one of the main targets on offense, catching most everything thrown his way. He took a couple snaps behind center in the “Wild Rebel” package and one in the halfback position. Wherever he went, he was elusive.
Speedy outside receiver Mike Wallace had several good grabs, and not just on deep balls. Nutt said he expects the SEC’s leader in yards-per-catch from a year ago to be more than just a deep threat this year.
“He’ll catch the ball. Possession routes, quick game, quick screens, he’ll do it,” Nutt said.
Tight ends inexperienced
One concern on offense has to be the fact that none of the tight ends on the depth chart has caught a pass as a Rebel.
So far, David Traxler and junior college transfer Gerald Harris have been getting most of the reps.
Nutt said he has confidence in both of them catching the football but would like to see a little more consistency in that area. He applauded their blocking and physicality.
Stanley getting noticed
Freshman quarterback Nathan Stanley, who is currently third string to Billy Tapp and Snead, has made quite an impression on his head coach.
“He’s really good,” Nutt said. “I’ve been proud of him because we’ve been putting him in some situations where (he’s) going against a Greg Hardy, going against an Emmanuel Stephens – pass rushers.
“And he doesn’t flinch. He hangs in there and makes his decision. He has good presence in the pocket. He throws the ball well, too.”
Competition fuels Eason
Running back Cordera Eason made a couple of huge plays Thursday, sending a message to the freshman trio competing for his spot that he doesn’t plan on going anywhere.
In a situation where the offense was backed up to its own goal line, Eason took the hand off, counter-stepped, made a few moves and went untouched for close to 50 yards.
Later, from around the offense’s 25-yard-line, Snead rolled out to the right, planted, and threw a strike back across to his left where Eason had snuck up the sideline. The Meridian native caught the ball in stride and took it to the end zone.
Walker makes big play on D
The play of the day on defense came early in the scrimmage portion of practice when linebacker Allen Walker read Snead’s eyes and took off to cover the slanting receiver on his left. The ball was thrown off target, but Walker, running full speed the opposite direction, stuck his right hand up just in time to snatch the ball out of the air and come down with a circus catch for the interception.
Practice resumes today at 5:30 p.m. at the Ole Miss practice fields. It is open to the public.
Saturday will mark the final practice which will be open to the public. Starting Sunday, all practices will be closed.
Ole Miss will open the 2008 campaign Aug. 30 when the Memphis Tigers travel to Oxford. Kickoff is slated for 6 p.m.