April 13, 2013 11:15:17 PM
Matthew Stevens - [email protected]
OXFORD -- Normally, a college football team's main objective is to come out of a spring season as healthy as possible.
Before the first day of practice, University of Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze knew that wasn't going to be possible, so he adjusted his goals. Even the format for the 2013 Grove Bowl had to be adjusted to compensate for the team's rash of injuries. As a result, the annual spring showcase was converted into a practice in front of an announced crowd of 28,000 at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
Ole Miss players executed drills and participated in supervised scrimmage periods without a scoring system while rock music played on the stadium speakers. The biggest ovation from the crowd came halfway through the festivities when Ole Miss unveiled its new uniforms on the stadium's jumbotron and former Ole Miss' and NFL alums were introduced, including Dexter McCluster, Ken Lucas, and Jeff Herrod.
This spring, Ole Miss had 14 players out of action or limited due to injury. Many of the injured were offensive skill position players who are expected to contribute in 2013.
"Quite a bit different," Freeze said when asked to describe his second spring game with the Rebels. "Last spring, everything they heard was foreign to them. Most of them this time had retained what we'd gone over in the fall, so we thought we could maintain a good pace."
With all of the injuries, Freeze immediately decided building depth was going to be the focus. Before members of a top-10 recruiting class arrive in Oxford, Freeze and his staff needed to know who could contribute in the fall.
"Defensive guys are way further ahead than offensive guys, and I don't know if that's all bad because you have to play great defense in this league," Freeze said after the scrimmage. "We're definitely headed in the right direction there."
Coming off his first season in Oxford, which resulted in a 7-6 finish and a victory against the University of Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl, Freeze knew he would be without Bow Wallace, the most valuable player in that game, in the spring. The transfer from East Mississippi Community College, who threw for 2,994 yards and 22 touchdown last season, had shoulder surgery Jan. 8 to address an injury he suffered against Tulane University in the second game of the season. Despite the injury, Wallace played with discomfort and started all 13 games.
Wallace is expected to rest at least three more months before he is medically cleared to start throwing. The injury to the 2012 Conerly Trophy winner allowed senior Barry Brunetti and sophomore Maikhail Miller to split time with the first-string offense to run Freeze's up-tempo spread offense in front of a patchwork offensive line.
The four quarterbacks who saw action Saturday went 15 of 37 for 197 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions.
"Barry is just so athletic that there's things we can use him in if we get a healthy line in front of him," Freeze said. "All of the quarterbacks will be better when that occurs, but I would say that position is still a concern."
After the graduation of A.J. Hawkins and the absence of Aaron Morris, who missed the spring after having offseason surgery, the Rebels are working with different combinations at guard alongside tackles Emmanuel McCray and Pierce Burton and center Evan Swindall. Patrick Junen is working at right guard, while Justin Bell and Jared Duke split time at left guard. An early class forced McCray, who started all 13 games in 2012, to miss the early portion of practices. Redshirt freshman Robert Conyers has been getting more snaps with the first-team group.
"We're just real thin there," Freeze said of the offensive line, which lost junior Chase Hughes for the rest of the spring with a torn labrum. "The ones we have are getting a lot of reps. They're having to rotate and try to take care of each other."
Freeze announced sophomore tailback I'tavius Mathers and sophomore defensive back Chief Brown -- two primary backups -- were the recipients of the school's most outstanding offensive and defensive players of the spring.
"We're actually way ahead of where we were last season at this time, but I was just hopeful we could've finished it off with more consistency," Ole Miss co-offensive coordinator Dan Werner said. "I don't think the guys we had out there did that."
The injuries also hit Ole Miss' receiving corps. Leading receiver Donte Moncrief was limited for most of the spring with a shoulder injury, and junior wide receiver Vince Sanders, of Noxubee County High School, was held out of Grove Bowl activities due to an undisclosed injury.
"The problem is the one position I've seen multiple guys step up is the backs, and that's one place we don't seem to have an depth issue," Werner said with a laugh. "I was pleased with the effort despite all the injuries, so when we do get the primary guys back, we liked to know we have guys that can step in. I'm still not sure."
With all the injuries and the unique combinations in the spring, Freeze said only about 50 percent of the offense and about 75 percent of the defense was installed.