2006 senior tribute

MLB Patrick Willis

The last three seasons have not been what the 2006 seniors dreamed about, hoped for or imagined in terms of wins and losses. There's no getting around that, but the memories they left and the accomplishments they did achieve will make a permanent mark on the Rebel football landscape.

The e-mail caught me off guard.

"You write a senior tribute every year, whether we win or lose. I like your efforts, but they (the senior players) can't all be model citizens and great players. If they are not, don't say they are."

Some writers may be offended by something like that. Defensive, even. Not me. Why? Because I know I'm right in praising every single one of them.

It's true they all aren't "great" players, and I don't say they are. It's true some of them are not going to go on to be what society calls a "success." There's a saint and sinner in all of us.

But there is one simple fact I always take into account. Anyone, and I mean anyone, who survives the rigors of playing college football and earning a degree at the same time, which takes four or five years, deserves praise and kudos for that accomplishment alone.

It takes a special person, a special passion, a special discipline and a special character just to last, without any of the other trimmings such as Honor Roll or All-American.

I have known many Rebel players I was not upset to see leave here. I can't remember one senior Rebel player I didn't get a little emotional about when their time ended. Lots of freshmen, sophomores and even juniors who didn't have the mettle or didn't like it here have come and gone with little remorse from me, but if you endure what these kids have to go through in their journey to becoming men through your senior year, you are OK in my book.

Thus, you will get another senior tribute, my 25th since starting The Ole Miss Spirit, that will praise the seniors individually, without apology. Some did not accomplish, on the field, what they set out to do, but they never gave up the quest.

The only difference in this year's and the like articles in the past will be that it's shorter because there are only nine seniors on the 2006 squad.

Any talk of the 2006 seniors has to start with Co-Captains Patrick Willis and Andrew Wicker.

In the years to come, there will be debates and discussion of where Willis ranks in the pantheon of former Rebel football players. Is he one of the best players here ever? The best linebacker here ever? One of the best? That's all a matter of opinion. Here's mine.

We've never had a better football player/person – at any position – than Patrick Willis. I don't even consider the unbelievable odds he overcame just to get here – a broken, impoverished home, being the man of his family at age 10, and so on. All I'm looking at and "judging" is P-Willie the Rebel.

His football talents don't need defending or rehashing. He's marvelous and will make millions and millions of deserved dollars because of that. But what absolutely floors you in day-to-day dealings with Patrick is his heart, on the field and off the field.

Did you know during the Rebs' open week, after 13 grueling weeks of football, and needing a rest badly, Patrick was the ringleader in organizing a team community service day in Oxford? That's just Patrick – always looking for ways to give back, even though the world has sometimes been a cold and cruel place for him.

Willis' football skills could be encapsulated – in my mind – by two plays, both against LSU. In the 2005 game, he met RB Justin Vincent in a hole near the Rebel goalline and executed what I consider the most perfect form tackle I had ever witnessed, driving Vincent backwards into the ground. Just last week, the Tigers ran a reverse to the fastest player on their team, who appeared to have the corner. Willis came out of nowhere and tackled the would-be TD maker before he could turn the corner. For my money, no other linebacker in the country could have made either play and they showed everything you need to know about #49. Speed? Check. Strength? Check. LB instincts? Check. Unselfish? Check. Leadership? Check. Intelligence? Check.

Polite, patient to a fault with the media, spiritual, caring, kind, considerate and the best damn linebacker I have ever seen on this campus and, along with Al Wilson and Derrick Thomas, the best I have ever seen in the SEC.

If NFL scouts have any sense at all, which I believe they do, Patrick Willis will immediately be handed the reins of an NFL defense and will lead it to victory for many years. And he will make them as proud of him as the Rebel nation is.

Wicker's path to my personal Rebel Hall of Fame has been a little different. As bright as they come, as can be easily seen in his Honor Roll accomplishments in the classroom and his ability to grasp any line position on either side of the ball almost instantly, Andrew is just a big old country boy at heart.

Country boys are tough cookies. Andrew has played, and practiced, much of his career in pain. Toughness has always been his calling card, but this year he blossomed into something that was always lurking around inside, but had not surfaced to its full extent – a leader.

As the 2006 season progressed, Andrew evolved into the quintessential leader of the team, probably carrying even more stroke than Willis. When he speaks, his teammates listen and take it to heart.

And that's a heckuva transformation for Wick, who, until this year, kind of followed the lead of the older guys. Truthfully, 2005 wasn't a good year for Wick, or any of the offensive linemen, but when Art Kehoe arrived on the scene, things changed quickly and the one who bought in the most was Wick. He blossomed in every way – as a player, a leader, and a person. Give Kehoe some credit, but Andrew's metamorphosis also came from within. Certainly Kehoe and all the OL have to be praised for the offensive line's night-and-day improvement from last year, but Wick has had as much influence on that as anyone.

I'll miss his no-nonsense approach to football and his fun and full approach to life. Andrew has not only been an outstanding Rebel, he's my friend, and I'm proud to say that.

I'm not really "ranking" any of these guys, but the next one who comes to mind is Free Safety Charles Clark.

Charles won't wow you with his football skills from an athletic standpoint. He's rarely going to make the flashy play. But you could count his mental "busts" on one hand and for the past two or three years he has been the glue in the Rebel secondary.

He's unassuming, quiet and complex. The Honor Roll student is about as well-rounded as anyone you will come across in my business. His teammates respect and believe in him, he sets the bar in the offseason and in practice, and any criticisms of him by fans who only see him on game day are entirely unwarranted and, to be honest, so uneducated in the big picture of what Rebel football is all about, they don't really deserve a response.

Charles has truly been an extension on the field of the DB coach he's played uinder during his career, and there have been four of them.

We might be more athletic at free safety in the years to come, but we may not be as effective, or smart, when it comes to "quarterbacking" the defense. He will be missed far more than the average fan realizes, from many angles.

Don't be too shocked to look up one day and see Charles on the sidelines coaching a college team. He'd be a natural in that profession.

Bryan "B." Brown, who has played every secondary position and has been as steady and reliable as they come on special teams for years, may be the most underrated player on the Rebel team. I have often thought his versatility has hampered his star quality. Every coach he has played under has said essentially the same thing, "B. is too valuable in too many positions to start him anywhere."

We all fall to the trappings of "starting" being the be-all-do-all in football. B. has defied that logic his whole career. Besides being a really good and likeable person, B. has been as valuable to the secondary coaches as anyone, maybe moreso than some of the starters.

Reliable, smart and a team guy all the way. What more can you ask? Well, B. is also an Honor Roll student.

Did you know Cornerback Trumaine McBride has been on the Honor Roll in the School of Accountancy every year he has been at Ole Miss? Did you know he's probably going to be a late-round draft pick in the NFL and if that doesn't work out he will become a CPA? And did you remember that he will accomplish all of that without the benefit of a redshirt year? In the past three years, T-Mac has had 34 straight starts and not many offenses have picked on him, or even tried to, in that time.

The Rebel secondary has gotten some criticism this year, internally and externally, but nobody ever seems to mention McBride in that breath. Why is that? Because he takes pride in everything he does and he does it well at the toughest position on the football field to play. If you are around T-Mac as much as I have been and don't love this kid, you have no heart or don't recognize the obvious. A winner through and through.

Tight End Lawrence Lilly is one of the most personable players on the Rebel team. Laid back, with an unbelievable, happy, smiling personality. If you don't know that side of him, you don't know Lawrence and you have missed out on some joy in your life.

Some will say he didn't realize his full potential on the field. That could be argued, but L.L. is just L.L. For three years, he truly thought he was giving football all he had to give. Then he grew up and realized he hadn't been. This year, after a slow start, Lawrence has been as instrumental as anyone in the Rebs' running game success at tight end.

It took Lawrence some time to "get it," but being around him a lot made the wait for his emergence worth it. Every team needs a "court jester," so to speak. Lawrence has added humor at times when it was sorely needed.

How would you like your son to be one of the top kickoff guys in the nation and also be one of the top students in the nation? Of course, you'd be proud. Charles and Michelle Moseley have to be brimming about son Will.

Will is a driven person. Disciplined, focused and determined. And if you will pardon the liberty I'm about to take, if he has a fault it is that he is too hard on himself. Perfectionists are like that.

But the rewards of that mindset are success. He's won national academic awards and is up for more. He can write his own ticket to any university he wants to attend to get graduate degrees of his choice. And he's got a booming right leg that served us well.

When Keith Houston came to Ole Miss as a late signee out of Philadelphia, MS, I really didn't have a lot of hope for him to be a player who would "stick." He was a ‘tweener – position-wise – and spent a nomadic football existence trying to find a position where he could help the team. Finally, Keith settled in as one of the leaders of the special teams. He found his niche and he found some direction in his life.

Keith came to Ole Miss as an underachiever academically. He will leave Ole Miss with two degrees and some fond memories on the field. I'd call that a success story.

James McCoy had a checkered career at Ole Miss. Some would suggest, and he would probably agree, that he never lived up to his potential on the field, but after leaving the program for a year to go to junior college and then coming back, McCoy grew up.

He put his nose to the grindstone, competed hard for playing time and will earn his degree after some trials and tribulations. You can accomplish great things without being a star – James is proof of that.

This was not a big senior class in numbers, but when the Rebel program starts winning on a consistent basis, their contributions to that transformation will be remembered as big. This group has blazed the path for the future of the Ed Orgeron Era. They bought in. They kept up with his torrid pace. They led the others in the understanding of what it takes to win on this level.

When the winning starts, don't forget them. They will deserve some of the credit.

And that's what it's all about.

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