Linebackers Coach Tom Allen can see it in the eyes of the Rebel LBs. He could also see it from their actions in spring training.
"They want to turn this thing around, they want to get it right," said Allen. "I am encouraged by their desire to fix it. They want to do something special here and what happened here the last couple of seasons isn't good enough and they want to put their foot down and make a change.
"As the linebackers coach, that's a good place to start because the linebackers have to lead on defense. I'm challenging them on taking up leadership roles and I feel they are starting to embrace that. Beyond that, we are in a learning phase and we have more work to do, but we have made progress this spring. We are gaining confidence in what we are doing and they are getting better and better at running to the ball. On film, we just didn't see them chasing the ball as relentlessly as we wanted and we have to change that mindset. It's every snap, no exceptions. I have been pleased with their response to that. They are willing, we just have to show them the way."
Note: In the base defense (4-3), the Rebels will use three linebackers – a Wolf, Mike and Stinger. For the purposes of this piece, that's what Allen will focus on.
At the Mike (middle), there is a Mike – Mike Marry.
"Mike's strength is his brain. He's very bright and he is good at getting us in the right call. He's also a good finisher. When he gets his paws on you, you are not getting away. He's big, strong and long," Allen began. "What he needs to work on is his burst to the ball, but I don't think I have seen him full speed yet due to a hamstring pull he's been nursing almost all of spring. We will work foot speed in the offseason, but there's no question he's the complete package guy for us."
Number two on the Mike depth chart is Ralph Williams followed by Will Martin and rounded out by walkon Josh "St. Paul" Lancaster.
"Ralph is an alley to alley guy and we need him to be sideline to sideline," Tom continued. "He's a very physical guy. Once he gets on you, like Marry, you aren't going anywhere. He has to keep learning the system and he needs to continue working on his burst to the ball. He's responded to running to the ball. He's a thick kid and he's not fat, but we need him a little leaner and that will help his burst and his stamina so he will have that burst the whole game.
"Will is just a tough guy. I love his attitude and want-to. His strength is his strike. He loves the game and he plays hard. He's always running to the ball. We will work with him on his quickness and change of direction in the offseason.
"St. Paul – I love that kid. He brings everything to the table. He loves this place and will be a great ambassador of Ole Miss. I'm going to try to get him on special teams because he plays all-out. He has one speed – as fast as he can go."
At Stinger (strong), Joel Kight is the main man with Serderius "Bird" Bryant next and Rudy Wilson rounding out the position.
"Joel has been my most pleasant surprise of the spring because I've asked him to learn all three linebacker slots and he's capable of doing that, which not many are," Allen noted. "He picks things up really well and he's been more physical at the Mike than I thought he'd be. His strength is his speed, but he needs to work on his reaction. He's a thinker – he just needs to pull the trigger and go. He's an awesome kid who I would like to see more vocal, but he's just naturally quiet. A fine young man who will play big for us this year and is so versatile he is extremely valuable.
"Bird is raw and talented. I love that he is reckless and physical, but I need him to be more disciplined – academically and on the field. I need him to play hard every single snap. When I show him on film what he's doing, he gets it and does well. The day before the first scrimmage of spring, he was all over the place and didn't play well. He did some film study and he was excellent in the scrimmage. To me, it's mindset. When he's locked in, he's a very good player.
"Rudy has been hurt (ankle) almost the whole spring. He does everything we ask him to do and is a good worker with a great attitude, but I haven't gotten a good evaluation on him due to injury."
At Wolf (weak), two converted safeties will man the position – Aaron Garbutt and Denzel Nkemdiche. Allen is pleased with both considering how new the position is to them.
"They are about even as we wrap up spring, but Aaron has been there a little longer and he's a little further along," Allen added. "Aaron's strength is his athleticism. He is still learning, but when he gets something down pat, he gives us length, he gives us burst and he is physical enough. What he needs to improve on is when a play comes right at him. He has to learn some better technique taking on 300-pound linemen with his hands, shedding him and getting to the running back. He is one of our better blitzers. He has a knack for reading on the run and finding a little crack to get through. He knows where he fits and understands where his help is.
"Denzel has been a huge plus for our linebacker corps. He made our room better immediately. Linebacker is a great fit for him. He has a linebacker mentality. He's our most relentless guy and he wants to be great. We call him the Tasmanian devil. That's great, but sometimes it gets him in trouble when he plays out of control, but every day he's gotten better and better at reeling that in. I love the way he flies around and what he brings to the table. He's a spark plug for us."
This is the eighth in a series of spring training stories.