Weeks of anticipation almost over

F-Back Larry Kendrick

With an influx of new frosh/JUCO players to see and many hanging questions to be answered from spring, the excitement level for this week's opening practice sessions is high. The following is Part 1 of a three-part commentary series to be published this week.

My mind is racing.

Being somewhat of a dullard, it takes a lot for my mind to spin this fast.

It happens, well, every time we get a new head football coach at Ole Miss.

Getting a new mentor always rekindles feelings of what "we" feel can be done at Ole Miss, our expectations for the future and the hope that new championship banners will fly over Vaught-Hemingway Stadium soon.

Unfortunately, I always - in my mind - fast-forward past the obvious potential pitfalls of a first-year regime.

Coach Ed Orgeron - he of a seemingly endless supply of adrenaline - even mentioned one of them at SEC Media Days last week when he said he's never been a head coach on game day and that he had, he was sure, things to learn despite his vast training of how to be a head coach by USC Coach Pete Carroll. Makes sense. The one thing Carroll couldn't teach him was what to do during a game as the lead guy - that's something that has to be experienced, not taught.

Personally, I think he'll handle it. I think he'll fall into the groove of game day coaching as quickly as he can teach a DT a rip technique. I think he was born for it. Growing pains? Sure. Major snafus? Doubtful.

I also think the mix on his staff will be very good and productive. You've got "old heads" Noel Mazzone, George DeLeone, Chris Rippon and Shawn Slocum, who have been there and done that on this level. Then you have Matt Luke and Matt Lubick, who are young but also have some battle scars at the highest collegiate level. Then you can tack on the energy of guys experiencing coaching on the D-1 level for the first time - Ryan Nielsen, Frank Wilson and Tony Hughes. Every staff needs a first-time factor. An exciting group of coaches to help Coach O carry the torch the way he wants it carried. In spring and through early recruiting, I was very impressed with their intensity, organization, attention to detail and planning.

With the direction (coaching) of the team in good hands, here's where the "racing" comes in for me.

The 2005 team, as exciting as I believe it can be and as optimistic as I am about it, still has a zillion questions to answer when August practice begins later this week. Maybe a zillion is an overstatement, but you get the drift.

Number one has to be: who will be the quarterback? Geez, I could write three columns on this subject alone, but suffice it to say the job is up for grabs and there are question marks by all the candidates' names. Who will emerge? In Wednesday's media gathering in Birmingham, Orgeron softened the subject a little by stating he and OC Mazzone would not put the weight of the game on the quarterback's shoulders until whoever the QB turns out to be is ready. That's smart, but Orgeron knows the position is critical no matter how much you tone down his responsibilities early on.

Will it be Spurlock, who has the slightest of edges going into August; Lane, who missed half of spring with a shoulder injury, but was challenging for the top spot when he was hurt; Flatt, who came on strong at the end of spring but appears to be somewhat of a darkhorse at this point even though he started nine games last year; or freshman Billy Tapp, who has been mentioned by Coach O as a possibility?

Nobody told me this, but I gotta believe a decision on who will trot out onto the field against Memphis to take the first snap of the year will be clearer around August 20 or so. Somebody is going to step up and distance themselves in the first two or three weeks of fall drills. I could be wrong, but I feel it. And I think the offense needs that for continuity and repetition sake as the last practices prior to the season click by. But if it goes down to the wire, don't be totally shocked. The QB position is that big a mystery at this point.

While it doesn't draw the ink the QB situation does, an equally big question in my mind is the solidification of the offensive line.

From what we have been told, a top five has not been determined yet. Spring produced, from what I have gathered, a top three - seniors Bobby Harris and Tre' Stallings and sophomore Darryl Harris. Everyone beyond them is still trying to prove their mettle to the coaches and it will be a very interesting race to the finish.

Who will be the center? DeLeone said recently that position is not solidified. Darryl Harris has been snapping in the offseason, but whether or not he plays center or guard will depend on how he fares in August. Tony Bonds is a senior and has experience there and Ben Boyce did some good things late in spring.

Will frosh OG Michael Oher really be the phenom we expect him to be? What we are expecting is a lot to ask of this young man. Will junior OG Andrew Wicker, who has never played a snap at OL, be able to make the transition from defense as quickly as we hope and as quickly as he says he can? Will someone from the ranks of Bonds, Boyce, David Traxler, Ryan Jones, et al, jump up and shake hands with the next level? Personally, I'm as anxious about the OL development as I am the quarterback situation. As coaches are apt to say "it all starts up front." In this league, that may be the truest of all cliches.

How will the running back corps perform without proven senior Vashon Pearson, who didn't make it academically and is no longer on the team? TB Jamal Pittman is the odds-on favorite to be the workhorse, but can he assume a role as the leader of that unit when all spring those guys were turning to VP for peer guidance? Will Alan Abrams break out this year after one loop around the SEC? Will senior Brandon Jacobs be more valuable at TB or FB? How much do we expect to see Larry Kendrick, who will be the versatile F-Back in Mazzone's offense, lining up in the I or one-back formations at a pure TB slot? Is redshirt freshman FB Jason Cook really ready for the SEC? See what I mean about this whole deal being exciting and unpredictable?

Personally, I think that mix will be figured out and will end up being a strength of the offense, but as Coach O repeatedly states, it's all etched in sand right now.

At wide receiver, the Rebs are able-bodied and have experience, but the challenge is for some of them to step up and be "go-to" guys. Mario Hill showed some of that last year and seems to be the most consistent of the candidates. Mike Espy had a really good spring and has lost weight to help his speed and quickness. I think he's primed for a big year. Taye Biddle is a gazelle, but he's got to get more consistent in catching the ball, something that has plagued him some in the past. What of Matt Pierce, Carlos Suggs and Burnell Wallace, three developing players who need to continue on that path? And how much does Kendrick figure into that mix? He proved he's a guy who needs to have the ball in his hands, but how much and from what angles/positions?

How do I see the wide receiver going down? Just a hunch, but I believe we are going to see vast improvement. I've talked to each one individually this summer and there's something in their eyes that makes me believe they truly understand the challenge and how much they are being counted on. I've seen a definite change in their leadership roles and their drive toward improvement. I think they have a chip on their shoulders because they were criticized some last year for erratic performances. I think they will have an excellent year, provided someone is getting the ball to them consistently and effectively.

Guys and girls, those questions and many more are just on offense. We'll tackle the defensive questions tomorrow, but it's easy to see why my pea brain is swirling.

And why I can't wait for practice to begin.

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