Last February, Marshay Green was preparing to fight for playing time at wide receiver and Kendrick Lewis was gearing up for a battle with incumbent Johnny Brown for the free safety job.
One year later, Green and Lewis are starters in Ole Miss' secondary. More importantly, the rising seniors have emerged as two of the leaders of an Ole Miss team that goes into the 2009 season as strong candidates to reach the Southeastern Conference Championship Game for the first time in school history.
"The seniors on the team have a duty to lead by example and vocally," said Green, who was moved to cornerback midway through spring drills last season and claimed a starting position for good in October. "We had great leaders last year in Peria Jerry and Jamarca Sanford. We want to continue the trend they started. I'm naturally vocal, so that part of it is easy for me, but I want to lead in other ways too. I want to help lead the team in the classroom and in drills and any way I can. Talking is fine, but there needs to be a point to your message.
"At the first of the season, I didn't have a clue what I was doing at cornerback because I had only been playing the position since spring. It's hard to lead or be very vocal when you are that uncertain about your own job. Now, going into my second year at cornerback, I feel like I know what I'm doing and I feel like I am playing more instinctively. With that kind of behind me, I can focus a little more on my team and my teammates and help by being a leader."
Lewis, who led Ole Miss with 85 tackles last season, emerged as an All-SEC candidate in the second half of the season. The former wide receiver added a sack, four interceptions, six pass break-ups, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery to his stat line.
"I always knew I had leadership ability in me, but last year it was a case of us having four great leaders and I just let them do their job as seniors," Lewis said. "This year, it's our job as seniors. The responsibility is on our backs now and it's something all the seniors are getting into. Our seniors last year were not only leaders on the field, they were leaders off the field. I learned a lot from them and it's now my duty and the duty of all the seniors to do the same for our younger players. It's the natural order of things.
"It's my last chance on this level. I'm not letting any day go by without trying to improve. I'm not going to waste any opportunities I have to get better. I want to get better mentally and physically, in every way. I want to get in the film room and study and keep working hard in the weight room. Bigger, stronger, faster and smarter are my goals."
Green, the defensive most valuable player of Ole Miss' AT&T Cotton Bowl Classic win over Texas Tech, finished the season with 32 tackles, two interceptions, six pass break-ups and one-half of a quarterback sack. That only told part of the story of his contribution, however. Along with Lewis, Green gave the Rebels' defense swagger and confidence.
"We gave up a few big plays at the end of that game (against Texas Tech), but we won and I could tell I was getting more and more comfortable with cornerback," Green said. "I was more consistent and more confident and I just built on that. I felt I got better and the whole secondary got better from that point on in the season.
"For the returning players off that team, we want to remember the feeling of winning, but last year is last year. For us to get where we want to go in 2009, we have to put last year behind us and stay focused on what's ahead of us. I just want to stay focused and make sure everyone around me is focused on the task at hand, not on what we did in the past. We all feel we have a tremendous opportunity in front of us if we take care of our business. We all understand it will be hard, real hard, to duplicate or better last year's results, so we all understand what we have to do to get there and one of the main things is to not look back. You want to reach back for that winning feeling, but beyond that everything is in front of us."
Lewis finds himself in an interesting spot this spring. One year after beating out Brown for a job, Brown appears poised to take over for Sanford at strong safety. Lewis is one of Brown's biggest fans.
"I have full confidence in Johnny," Lewis said. "He's up to the challenge of taking over for Jamarca. Some of the young guys don't understand the concepts of the coverages as well as the older guys do and it's our job to make sure they understand why we do what we do. You have to understand in coverages where your weak spots are, what you can give up and what you can't give up. You have to know what the receivers are trying to do also. If you know all those things, you can be more aggressive in your approach.
"We are getting the concepts now. Last year, we had some mental errors, but as we learned more and more about the system we got better. This year, we should know everything inside and out and that should help our performance and production. We should be able to play faster. We should be able to play more instinctive now and that will help us play faster."
The Rebels open spring drills on March 26. The annual Grove Bowl game at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium is scheduled for April 18. The spring will likely only heighten expectations for a team that won its last six games and earned a spot in the top 15 of every major national poll. Having internal leaders in place to handle the pressure that accompanies those expectations will be critical. Both Green and Lewis said Ole Miss will be up to the task.
"We have a lot of starters coming back from last year and we have all been in the system a year," Green said. "It's all mental now. We just have to perfect and stay consistent and I think we can be one of the top defenses in the SEC and in the nation."
"I don't pay any attention to that," Lewis said. "These are the same people who had us last in the West before last season. You can't look at that. You have to work hard to improve every day. Everyone is trying to beat everyone. Best man wins. We are going to work hard and prepare ourselves as if we are starting from scratch, because in reality we are. Everyone will start next year 0-0 and everyone wants to win. Forget last year. Forget predictions. What counts is what you do on the field."
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