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Sunday, December 21, 2014

No fun in spring, but boring is better

COLUMN: I’ve spent the better part of this late-arriving spring talking to various coaches and visiting campuses to watch teams practice for their respective Spring games. There’s little in common with all the places I’ve been and will go, but if there’s a theme, it’s that boring is better.

No coach would phrase it quite like that, but the programs that are consistent in all phases — winning games, keeping key assistants, creating successful recruiting depth on an annual basis — don’t normally have a lot of crazy spring headlines. Or even interesting ones.

Things are a lot less interesting at Ole Miss compared to a year ago. Ask Hugh Freeze privately and he’d tell you that’s for the better. A year ago there was a double-digit tally of potential grade busts, very little clarity as to whether certain key players were wideouts, DBs, safeties or linebackers and a general state of total raw discovery.

The 2013 Spring Rebels seem comatose by comparison. There’s no quarterback controversy, there’s more than just one suitable running back (remember that crisis?) and we’re all fairly certain what part of the field Denzel Nkemdiche will roam (all of it).

Don’t complain. I attended a spring practice in Knoxville last week and watched a team with zero idea who their QB would be against Austin Peay in August, running backs still confused by a brand new scheme, nary a wide receiver to speak of and the league’s worst defense a year ago trying to find new footing. It made for a much more interesting practice from individual play to play, but that’s because there’s no real idea of what’s going to come next.

Embrace the boredom at this Saturday’s Grove Bowl, and understand that for once, the gripes and worries of the Rebels aren’t as bad as other programs in the SEC. That’s not to downplay legitimate concerns — Freeze is completely right about depth issues behind acknowledged starters.

It’s the reason this team isn’t being penciled in for 8-plus wins in 2013. Just imagine what you’ll see in the intermediate and deep passing game on Saturday sans-Bo Wallace as a reality for the fall. In a lot of key places, Ole Miss has either found a serviceable starter or a bonafide star, but behind that it’s iffy.

Saturday won’t be a total wash. If you’re looking for something to obsess over, try these three areas:

1. A neutered defensive line — There’s no Nkemdiche here yet, nor will there be C.J. Johnson. That means it’s Channing Ward’s chance to show something, as well as the returning D.T. Shackelford. One or both need to improve before fall.

2. Jeff Scott’s backup — Had Randall Mackey not found a wayward home at running back last year, things would’ve been painful. Either Mark Dodson needs to emerge as a physical threat, or I’Tavius Mathers and/or Jaylen Walton will have to improve.

3. Nick Brassell — “Snoop” is worth watching regardless, but look to see if he’s retained the playmaker ability he flashed briefly in 2011. On raw talent alone, he’s a better corner than starters Charles Sawyer and Senquez Golson. (April 10, 2013, Page 2B)

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