February 20, 2009

Young Rebels Jones, Epperson ready for playing time

Jason Jones was ready to throw in the towel during a recent offseason workout.

Allen Walker wouldn't let him. So Jones persevered, pushed through and completed the exercise in question.

Less than seven months away from the start of the 2009 football season, Jones' development has transitioned from a pleasant surprise to a critical necessity.

"Right now, it's still a process of learning," said Jones, who was one of the more impressive freshmen last season. "I'm still getting adjusted to the SEC game of football. Coming from high school, it's a big transition -- the speed, the strength, the guys you have to go up against, the gaps you have to fill and the responsibility. I can see myself playing this year, but along with Jonathan Cornell teaching me the responsibilities and the schemes, I can see us getting about half and half playing time."

Jones has added 18 pounds to his 6-foot-3 frame. He'll start spring drills next month at a chiseled 240 pounds.

"You can see a big change in my body," Jones said. "I went home and some people didn't know who I was. This strength and conditioning team is very great. They have us doing a lot of things -- a lot of technique and a lot of strength also. They're getting us faster.

"Last week, I was at 245 and (Ole Miss strength and conditioning) Coach (Don) Decker was like, 'Not a pound more. You've got to go down. Coach (Houston) Nutt wants me to stay between 235 and 240. It's amazing though to see how quickly you can get up on your weight. I learned so much since I've been here in the summer time. Along with strength and the weight gain, it's like more power and more force has been added to my tackling skills."

With Tony Fein and Ashlee Palmer gone to graduation, Jones and fellow freshman Lekenwic Haynes are going to be counted on to factor into the rotation. The duo earned the respect of their elders last season and by December, they were two of the Rebels' better linebackers.

"Jonathan Cornell is a very smart guy and right now, he's teaching and preaching me up on everything we have going on right now," Jones said. "For me this year, I'm just looking forward to getting my feet wet a little bit more this year.

"They always encouraged us. If we messed up on a drill or if we did good, it was, 'Good job,' or 'You've got to get better right here. Let's go in the film room. I'll teach you this. I'll teach you that. Let's do whatever we have to do to get better.' That's the motivation. That's what they've been telling us throughout our redshirt year. We feel like we can do it. It's just a matter of time."

YOUNG TIGHT ENDS IN MIX NOW: E.J. Epperson and Ferbia Allen were inseparable last season. The two Arkansas natives wowed coaches and teammates alike in practices, but on Saturdays, they watched while Gerald Harris and David Traxler played.

Now, said Epperson, "It's time to man up. I'm ready to get rolling."

Epperson will report to spring drills at 260 pounds, 30 more than he weighed last August.

"I'm just eating, drinking protein shakes and working out," Epperson said. "I was surprised. I was finally looking like a football player, an SEC-type anyway. I could tell by the contact I was making with Emmanuel Stephens and (Marcus) Tillman that I was getting ready to play."

Epperson will miss most of the contact work this spring as he continues to recover from a severe left wrist injury that he suffered in December.

"I tore all my ligaments and fractured a few bones," Epperson said. "I have a few screws in my wrist. It feels pretty good right now. I've been doing well in rehab. It's coming along really good."

His role could change between now and August. He's expected to see some work at fullback and H-back, and Ole Miss defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix is lobbying for him to make the switch to defensive end. Epperson said he just wants to play.

"It's a big role for me to play this year," Epperson said. "Gerald Harris is a senior. Me and Ferbia are working hard. I'm going to go home with Ferbia over the spring break and we're going to work hard at his house. …It doesn't matter to me (what position he plays). I'm just here to play hard for Ole Miss."

It was a common sight last season to see Epperson, Allen and some of the young wide receivers working with freshman quarterback Nathan Stanley after practice. That relationship has blossomed over the past seven months, though Epperson said he's looking forward to working with Jevan Snead more this summer.

"I feel really comfortable with Jevan," Epperson said. "Jevan, he's a good dude, but I'm really close to Nate Stanley. We work together a whole lot. Nate's going to fill his shoes after Jevan leaves, I do believe. The offense has some guys to step up, but in this offense, it's all about waiting your turn. I mean, those guys up there have to eat. This year coming up, I may not get but a couple of balls. We've got Dexter McCluster and Shay Hodge out there, so I have to wait my turn and I have to respect that."

As for his relationship with Allen, Epperson admitted that there are times when the intensity of the competition threatens the strength of the friendship, but he said that always gets nipped quickly.

"It's all about working hard," Epperson said. "I was No. 2 behind Gerald before I got hurt. Hopefully, I can work hard and get my spot back.

"(Allen) has got to put on weight. I'm faster than he is. He's got better footwork than I do. We're kind of like opposites. He's my friend and everything, but I have to do what I have to do. Sometimes, I want to get at him a little and show him who's running, but that's my guy, though. It gets a little hot sometimes, but we try to keep it to a minimum."

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