Former Rebel Greats Abide and Darnell discuss upcoming season

Hotty Toddy, Rebel Nation!

Rebels everywhere can hardly wait for the Grove Bowl this coming Saturday, April 13th. The annual scrimmage is the culmination of spring training and provides an opportunity for the coaches, players and fans to see the future of Rebel football.

One of my good friends, Coach David Bariola, grew up and played football with former Ole Miss Linebacker Gary Abide at St. Joseph High School in Greenville, MS. I recently visited with Coach Bariola about last year’s successful season, the Rebel recruiting bonanza, and the enthusiasm present in Oxford today.

I asked Bariola if he knew how former Rebel players feel about the current direction of the Ole Miss program. Imagine my surprise when he called me a few days later and said he had already talked to two former players who were happy to share their thoughts.

Bariola spoke with two of the all-time greats—linebacker Abide and quarterback John Darnell. I’m truly excited and honored to bring you their comments on the team and the upcoming season. Many thanks to Coach Bariola for speaking with these Rebel standouts!

Gary Abide, as most of you probably know, played LB at Ole Miss from 1989-1993 and was Co-Captain his senior year. John Darnell played Quarterback from 1987-89, was a Co-Captain of the ’89 group, and is a “Team of the Century” member. Needless to say, these two former players are STARS!

When asked about the thrilling 2012 season, Abide relayed how exciting it was to see the Rebs play hard for an entire game. “I wanted to see us compete for 60 minutes–week in and week out in the SEC,” he said. He also stressed the importance of how the team gave it 100% every game. “If they keep working every day as hard as they have been, good things are going to continue to happen with this program.”

QB Darnell echoed Abide’s sentiments. “I wanted to see them compete every week with that tough schedule. Even in our losses we still competed for a solid 60 minutes,” he said.

Darnell stressed the importance of playing with passion. “I grew up watching Ole Miss football, and when I played under Coach Brewer he preached about playing with emotion.” The former QB praised Coach Freeze and his staff for bringing that intensity back to the program. “We all wanted to see them play with emotion and we saw that last season.”

Coach Bariola spoke with Abide about his expectations for the defense this coming season.

Former Rebel LB Gary Abide (Courtesy of Gary Abide)

Defensive Line

Abide believes the defensive line could be something special. He explained that having an All-SEC caliber player like C.J. Johnson (who will return this season at defensive end following a broken leg suffered this spring), along with defensive end Channing Ward, defensive lineman Isaac Gross, and defensive tackle Byron Bennett will make the Rebel D-line very tough.  “Gross had an awesome season, and Bennett did a great job against some really big offensive linemen,” he explained.

Abide pointed out that signing JUCO transfer, Lavon Hooks (who this Ole Miss gridiron girl was honored to interview last month), is also huge.  “If Hooks is as good as has been advertised, it will be an exciting group to watch.”

If the defensive line doesn’t sound impressive enough already, just imagine how tough the “Landshark” defense will be when the nation’s number one high school recruit, Robert Nkemdiche, is added to the mix. I have a feeling there will be a lot of “Fins Up” at Vaught-Hemingway stadium this year!

Abide was quick to mention how lucky the Rebels are to have Chris Kiffin as defensive line coach. “Coach Kiffin is a fantastic coach and recruiter and he will surprise some people this spring,” Abide said.

Linebackers

Bariola spoke with Abide about something on the minds of many Rebels, and that is how concerned he is about the potential lack of depth at the linebacker position this year–following the loss of Joel Knight to graduation and Ralph Williams to transfer.

Abide, obviously an expert at the LB position, didn’t hesitate. “We have a great NFL prospect in Mike Marry and we have Denzel Nkemdiche who had a tremendous freshman year last season.  We also have players like Keith Lewis and Serdarius Bryant who I expect will help out a lot.  And, of course, you cannot count out D.T. Shackleford.”

Abide stressed what D.T. Shackleford means to the “Landshark” defense. “If D.T. is healthy, look out! This defense will be that much better.  He is a leader on and off the field, and makes everyone around him that much better,” he said.

Secondary

When asked about the secondary, Abide pointed out the players to watch. “Charles Sawyer is solid at corner, and Senquez Golson has experience.” He notes the depth at the position in the form of Cliff Coleman, Dehendret Collins, and Anthony Standifer. “And you can’t forget Nick Brassell,” he adds. “He can make some big plays on both sides of the ball.”

“Cody Prewitt really brought it last season and Trae Eslton is such a heavy hitter back there,” Abide added. He also noted the Rebels’ depth with Quintavius Burdette, Chief Brown, and Brishen Matthews, who can all make big plays.

Coach Freeze recently hired former ‘Bama player and Oklahoma St. coach Jason Jones to come in and coach the corners—a decision with which Abide agrees.  “I trust Coach Freeze’s choice of Coach Jones to coach the corners. He is a great hire and he knows what it takes to win in this conference.  This secondary improved over the season, and they have improved even more this spring.”

Following Abide’s discussion of the Rebel D, we now present former QB Darnell’s thoughts on the Rebel offense.

Former Rebel QB John Darnell (courtesy of David Bariola)

Quarterback

Bariola asked Darnell if he thought the absence of QB Bo Wallace during spring training (due to shoulder surgery) would hurt heading into the coming season. Darnell did not hesitate with his reply. “Bo Wallace showed me his toughness all season. When it counted, he really stepped up.” Likewise, Darnell has no doubt that Wallace is working hard this spring, taking mental reps, and will step up, again, in the fall.

Darnell spoke also of Wallace’s toughness. “Fighting his injury all season long was very impressive on his part. It really showed his character–playing hurt and still helping to lead this team.” No doubt the offense needs Wallace to get healthy between now and the fall, but Darnell focused on the positive. “This also helps Barry Brunetti and Mikhail Miller (backup QBs) take some reps so they can improve and push Wallace this summer and fall.”

Wide Receivers

One gridiron great the Rebels desperately need to replace is RB/WR Randall Mackey.  Darnell admitted that losing Mackey will hurt because of how much Mackey contributed last season.  Mackey rushed for 325 yards and four touchdowns in 2012 and caught 25 passes for 346 yards.

But Darnell is quick to point out that the Rebels have an incredibly talented group of guys he believes will step up.  “We have an army of big, tough wide receivers,” he said.

Darnell is not exaggerating, as 6’1”  Vince Sanders, 6’3” Ja-Mes Logan, and 6’3” Donte Moncrief are all going to be forces on the football field. And soon the nation’s number one wide receiver recruit 6’3” Laquon Treadwell will join the Rebels.

The bottom line is the tremendous talent the Rebels have. “The coaching staff got Mackey in the right place to make plays last season, and they will do the same with these guys. We have a lot of talent stepping up this spring, as well as coming in this fall,” he says.

Running Backs

Wallace isn’t worried about the running back position, either.  “Jeff Scott is returning and Mark Dodson should fit in nicely with the RB corps. We’ve also got Jaylen Walton and I’Tavius Mathers returning, and each of those guys fits the system and will be exciting players to watch,” he said.

When asked if they had anything else to say about the direction the program is going, both Abide and Darnell had the highest of praise for Coach Freeze and his staff.

Darnell believes it all starts at the top. “Hats off to Coach Hugh Freeze and this coaching staff, and also to the strength and conditioning coaches.  I felt we were thin going into the Alabama game, but we played them physical and competed with them. That is because of this great coaching staff and the hard work of the players.”

Abide, too, notices the change in attitude at Ole Miss. “Coach Freeze and his staff have improved the atmosphere around this program. Now, just like at Alabama or LSU, being a starter means something–and the staff is bringing that attitude. There have been some great position battles this spring, and that will carry over to camp as the team prepares for the first game against Vandy. Now everyone knows the type of recruits coming in and the competition will make our team better,” he added.

Darnell credits the staff for the Rebels’ resurgence. “Great things are happening at Ole Miss and it feels awesome because these coaches are doing it the right way.  I think we have the staff here that will keep the momentum going and we have the fan base that will push Ole Miss football to where it should be.”

John Darnell and Gary Abide know exactly where they expect to see the Rebels–and that is at the top of the SEC West Division!

No matter what happens at the Grove Bowl this Saturday in Oxford, the Rebels are sure to “Win the day!”

(Many thanks to Coach David Bariola for speaking to Gary Abide and John Darnell!)

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