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Three and Out: Grove Bowl Edition

Three areas to watch as Ole Miss splits into two teams for the annual Regions Bank Grove Bowl on Saturday.

Can Someone Emerge in the Quarterback Battle?

By all indications, sophomores Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade and junior college transfer Chad Kelly have split reps evenly this spring. 

The coaches have charted every throw and every drill, but there does not appear to be any true separation, and head coach Hugh Freeze has said he expects the competition to continue into the middle of fall camp.

Freeze and co-offensive coordinator Dan Werner were both generally pleased with the play of all three quarterbacks in their last scrimmage, but Freeze did say that Buchanan graded out the best of the three.

What does their last opportunity to impress the coaches before summer workouts and fall camp hold? 

As with previous observations of the quarterbacks, there's a caveat: The offense is not yet at full strength, particularly along the offensive line, where the Rebels have just 10 healthy players.

Physical Play on the Outside

More than any other matchup on the field, I found myself watching the wide receivers and tight ends working against the defensive backs. The play is physical, and the players appear to take each play personally.

Perhaps the most physical on the offensive side of the ball, Laquon Treadwell, will not be participating in the Grove Bowl, but Quincy Adeboyejo, Cody Core and Markell Pack have all returned from their respective injuries. Derrick Jones has also been one of the biggest surprises of spring practice and he's another player to watch.

On the defensive side of the ball, Tony Bridges and Tee Shepard are long, athletic and physical, and they pride themselves on being able to play on an island by themselves. Kendarius Webster is another long, athletic and physical corner. Like Derrick Jones, C.J. Hampton has been another surprise of spring practice.

It should be fun to watch on Saturday.

Battle in the Trenches

The Ole Miss defensive line was one of the most talented units in the nation last year. This year, the group may be even better with a year of maturity and experience for returnees and the addition of a trio of redshirt freshmen in Victor Evans, Garrald McDowell and Breeland Speaks and junior college transfer D.J Jones.

That being said, one of the areas where Freeze has been most pleased this spring has been in the running game, a credit to an offensive line that continues to deal with injuries and a group of running backs that may have found their stride this spring. Akeem Judd is one name that has popped up a lot this spring.

Junior Jeremy Liggins, who has transitioned to offensive tackle, and redshirt freshman Jordan Sims and freshman Javon Patterson, who have both come a long way this spring, are three players to watch along the offensive line.

By splitting into two teams, with five healthy offensive linemen each, it may be hard to tell if there's any improvement in the running game on Saturday, but it's something to watch nevertheless. And it will certainly be something to watch when the Rebels will likely have a full complement of healthy players come fall camp.

Junior cornerback Tee Shepard's story has been well-documented. 

Shepard is hearing impaired, but since he has arrived at Ole Miss, he has been the beneficiary of new hearing technology that has allowed him to hear sounds, such as a coach's whistle.

"The new technology hearing aid I have is phenomenal," Shepard said. "When I got it last fall, I heard my first whistle ever. It's crazy because I'm hearing sounds I haven't heard before, and I'm starting to pick it up."

Shepard is thankful for Ole Miss and the resources they have been able to provide him, specifically someone who understands his impairment in Shannon Singletary, the senior associate athletics director for health and sports performance.

"This is the first place that finally understood how bad my hearing was," Shepard said. "Shannon has a hearing loss himself, so we have that connection, and he's helped out me out big time."

That same fall, when he heard his first whistle, he appeared on the verge of emerging as a starter, or at least a regular contributor, in the Rebels' defensive backfield.

However, his promising fall camp was cut short after tearing a tendon in his toe that required surgery and a long rehabilitation.

"It was a freak accident," Shepard said. "I had never heard of a torn ligament in your toe. Everything happens for a reason. God has made me better this year. I was disappointed, but at the same, it got me ready and prepared for this season."

His toe, Shepard said, is probably about 85 percent, but he trusts it now. He said he also added about 10 pounds that has helped him be even more physical this spring.

"I have always been a physical corner," Shepard said. "You have to be physical because these big wide receivers are physical, like Laquon Treadwell. If we're not physical with them, they're going to outwork you." 

Nearing the end of his first spring practice, Shepard has once again emerged as a likely starter at cornerback for the Rebels, perhaps opposite fellow junior Tony Bridges, a junior college transfer.

"We have to be physical, lockdown corners because we can't run our defense the way we want to without us being on an island by ourselves," Shepard said. "I have been looking forward to this moment. It's been a long journey for me. I'm excited. I'm ready to go."

Players Ready to Take on Bigger Roles in Year Two

They did not have the fanfare of the class that came in the year before them, but last year's freshmen made valuable contributions in their own way. Among those then-freshmen are sophomore defensive end Marquis Haynes and sophomore offensive guard Rod Taylor. 

Haynes, a Freshman All-America and SEC All-Freshman selection, set an Ole Miss freshman record for sacks with a team-leading 7.5 last season. Coaches and his teammates have noted how Haynes has gotten stronger to play better against the run, which has been a point of emphasis for him going into and through spring practice.

"I didn't trust my power like I should have my freshman year," Haynes said. "This year, I want to try to do better on that. I have been getting stronger. Playing the run against Alabama, I saw what I was doing. This year, I should have a big improvement."

Taylor was a regular in the offensive line rotation and started two games, including the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl against TCU, getting thrown into the fire due to injuries. It has been a similar case for him this spring, running with the first-team offense and getting a lot of reps, also due to injuries.

"It's been good to get increase reps in practice," Taylor said. "I feel like with me getting a lot of reps at my position, I'm getting better at what I'm supposed to do and I feel like I'm getting better every day. I had to get better with my technique and my stance and putting my hands in the right place. Those are the things I'm getting better at."

The coaches have also raved about second-year players C.J. Hampton, who's emerged at free safety, DeMarquis Gates, who might can play both Mike or Stinger linebacker, and Kendarius Webster, who like Tee Shepard, is in the mix at the cornerback position.

The SEC Network will air every SEC spring football game with multiple viewing opportunities on both television and the network's digital platforms. All 12 spring football games will be carried live and in full on SEC Network + with additional coverage on SEC Network Alternate.

On Saturday, April 11 and Saturday April 18, SEC Network Alternate will carry whiparound coverage between the multiple games being played, including the Grove Bowl on April 11. Every spring game will also have multiple airing during the week on SEC Network.

The Grove Bowl, scheduled for April 11 at noon, will be broadcast live on SEC Network+, and it will later be broadcast on the SEC Network on Sunday, April 12 at 5:30 p.m. Chris Cotter and Greg McElroy will be on the call and Kayce Smith will be on the sidelines.

The network's coverage of spring football will also include "SEC Network: 2015 Spring Football Tour," a school-dedicated series on series on Southeastern Conference football teams, which will include coaching interviews, practice football and news of the day over multiple shows.

Ole Miss will be the location highlighted as part of the series on Tuesday, April 7 at 10 p.m. CT with hosts Kayce Smith and Booger McFarland.

For a full schedule of both the spring games and the SEC Now: 2015 Spring Football Tour, click here.

Graduate student linebacker Deterrian Shackelford will wear Chucky Mullins' No. 38 jersey for the second time in his Ole Miss career, but for the first time in Saturday's Grove Bowl, he wore it during a game. 

The first non-senior to win the award in 2011, Shackelford also became the first-two recipient of the Chucky Mullins Courage Award.

"It's a blessing," Shackelford said. "It's the first time something like that has happened at this university, so I'm honored and blessed that the coaching staff and the people who had a part in this selection process picked me to represent Chucky Mullins with that honor.

"My junior year, I didn't think I had a possibility of winning either, so both of them caught me off guard. I'm overwhelmed. I never imagine going to a university and having this much of an impact, especially having as much of an impact as I have had not being on the field. Growing up, you always think your impact is going to be making sacks and touchdowns, but to see that in a different view, I have certainly been blessed to be in that situation."

Shackelford was awarded a sixth year of eligibility after he missed the entire 2011 and 2012 season due to knee injuries. Despite his absence on the field, he remained a team leader on and off the field. He played both linebacker and defensive end last year and found a home at middle linebacker this spring.

Raised expectations were a common theme throughout the spring coming off an 8-5 season and a Music City Bowl victory, which he and his teammates have embraced entering the summer leading up to the season opener against Boise State on Aug. 28 in Atlanta.

"I don't feel like it was an unrealistic expectation," Shackelford said. "It was all realistic. The things that we can do this year are no dream. There's no, 'Maybe, we can do it; maybe we can't.' 

"We know we have the pieces to the puzzle and we can do it. The time is now. We feel a sense of urgency. We put ourselves in a great position. We have a lot of veterans coming back. We can do a lot of big things, but we have to stay humble and we have to keep working. In spite of all the hype and all of that, we have to stay humble and continue to work. We can go far."

Key Spring Dates

The spring athletics season has official kicked off, and here are a few key dates that won't show up on the usual team schedules. You will be hearing tons more about these events in the coming weeks, but consider this your save the date.

March 5 - Football spring practice starts
March 31 - Rebels Choice Awards
April 5 (AM) - 25th Annual Chucky Mullins Courage Award Ceremony Presented by the M-Club
April 5 - Grove Bowl
April 13-18 - BancorpSouth Rebel Road Trip



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    Joe Snaidauf said:

    Rebs stay healthy, they can win it all!!!

    in post Eleven Rebels Garner Phil Steele Preseason Honors

    Jamie laverty said:

    Bulmer I love you and ole Miss

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    Rhonda said:

    Coach Freeze is a genuine coach and our players and fans adore him!!

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    Gary Vaughn said:

    It's great to be a Rebel fan. Coach Freeze
    Has brought back the excitement
    Competitiveness we all so desire. The
    fan base and even our doubters are
    Paying attention. Even the whole country
    Sport tLk shows ect. Are taking notice.
    After we upset Alabama this weekend
    38-27 we will bolt to a top 12 or better
    Ranking. Go Rebels

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    Tom said:

    I am not and never have been an Ole Miss fan. I am however a Coach Freeze fan. I like what he represents in today's world of big time sports and what he stands for in leading young men of today into a more responsible role. He is everything that Ole Miss has never had. I am on his band wagon winning or losing.

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    How can I get my hands on one of these?

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    Dave Darnell said:

    Gray pants with red and blue stripes on the legs have served Ole Miss football my entire life time. The blue on blue, red on red and white on white are hideous and UGLY! Leave the pants alone.

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    Tiger fan here (LSU) b we now have 3 in the SEC. You guys looked great last year. You looked coached, and the players were up for every game. Good to see you back in the hunt.

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