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Rebels Show Promise In Grove Bowl As Spring Practice Ends

With the conclusion of Saturday’s Grove Bowl, spring practice has come to an end. For all the talk of bowl bans and NCAA investigation results, seeing some live football was a welcomed change in Oxford. 
The 15-practice period saw the installation of new systems from new coordinators on both sides of the ball, and the product on the field today was clearly a work in progress. Led by Shea Patterson, the offense won the day as they were able to uncork a few big plays on the defense. Patterson finished the day with an impressive stat line, going 21 of 30 for 341 yards with 2 TDs. 
It’s easy for a quarterback to be efficient when they have an immense amount of talent at the receiver position, which the Rebels clearly have. Rising sophomore A.J. Brown finished the day with 133 yards on 5 catches and a TD. Brown’s TD came on a quick slant, and Brown did the rest. Spinning his way out of DB Myles Hartsfield’s arms and running free. D.K. Metcalf silenced any questions about any lingering pain from his foot injury with 98 yards and a TD. Van Jefferson’s role will be one to watch out for, as the speedy receiver continued to get open and finished the day over 100 yards and had a 74-yard TD from backup QB Jordan Ta’amu. Markell Pack has earned rave reviews for the improvements he’s made this spring and earned that praise today, with 3 catches for 80 yards. 
“The line did a great job, running backs took off on runs, and to have those guys take off like that and get those yards after the catch, it makes my job a lot easier,” Patterson said. 
The running game will continue to be a question mark until we see it in action against a true opponent, but the Rebels ran well today. The Rebels totaled 170 yards on the ground, with the leading rusher, DK Buford, picking up 53 of those yards on 16 carries. Jordan Wilkins is expected to be the feature back in the offense but was held out of the game after the first few series. 
“It has to get where we need it to get. It’s going to get taught, corrected and presented the right way. We do have the talent to be a good running team along with our passing game,” OC Phil Longo said. “So I’m confident that, unless something drastically changes, we’ll be where we need to be with the run game.” 
The defensive side of things is where you can see more clearly where improvements still need to be made. While it’s good to see the offense make big plays, it’s not good to see it against your own starting defense. Early on the Rebel defense was unable to contain the offense, and while they managed to do a better job as the game progressed, in a real game, it may have been too late. In reference to the big offensive plays, head coach Hugh Freeze talked about the challenges of watching that as a coach. 
“You want to high five your receivers and say ‘great job’ then you want to say you can’t give up explosive plays I don’t know that I’ve ever left a scrimmage feeling great because something went wrong for something to go right. You have to look at both sides and prepare for the day when we’re not playing each other,” Freeze said. 
The good news for the Rebels is they still have the entire summer to implement and perfect the new system. The one thing this defense won’t lack is energy. New DC Wesley McGriff has done an excellent job instilling a mindset in his defense to finish every play at practice. This was most evident when Cam Ordway chased down Metcalf to force a fumble after the receiver had worked his way 50 yards down the field. McGriff liked how his defense bounced back after a shaky start. 
“I felt really good about the communication, guys getting lined up right away, being able to key and diagnose against the run. We’ve got to keep the top on the coverage on the outside, wasn’t pleased about that, but overall it was a good day. It was good to see those guys get out and play,” McGriff said. 
All in all, you can’t look at a spring game and say definitively that this is how the team will look going into the 2017 season. Both sides were working with a limited number of plays and signals in what was described by OC Phil Longo as the “skeleton” of the system. Adjustments have to be made, plays need to be perfected and much more needs to happen before the fall rolls around, but what we saw today was definitely a step in the right direction. 
Hear Freeze’s and Patterson’s full remarks below:

Steven Gagliano is a writer for HottyToddy.com. He can be reached at steven.gagliano@hottytoddy.com
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