Houston Nutt was left the core of a good team, that had been beat up as youngsters. That offensive line gave up an unbelievable number of sacks for two seasons learning Kay Stephenson’s seven-step drop passing game. Clint Stoerner was raw and took a beating. But they all became seasoned in that process.
Houston Nutt knocked out some of that stuff and went more with a running game with some play-action passing. So he took advantage of some things that were there and culled some things (offensive plays) that were too tough for that line to block.
Young players in the offensive line leads to sure death. Juniors and seniors who have played are much easier to work with as far as coaching. They have seen it all, understand it all.
There were other things. I do think morale was down. There may have been a black-white divide that needed fixing. Houston fixed both. He was a huge dose of enthusiasm. Keith Burns was a breath of fresh air for what was a good bunch of defensive players, that just needed some reshaping, mostly in the secondary.
One single decision galvanized the defense and that was placing cornerback Zac Painter at strong safety. He had some cover skills and could tackle. And, he could be protected by the free safety. He was a great asset as a blitzer and was the finishing touch for that defense. He gave the defense the ability to play an eight-man front and also to drop into coverage. He was smart and had enough athletic ability. He’d been a liability at corner, but was a strength at safety. Kenoy Kennedy was a great free safety. That secondary loved playing for Burns. He gave them the opportunity to blitz and they felt like they had been given new life.
I’m told that Houston’s first meeting with the team after being named coach proved to be interesting. The team filed in and sat in groups of black and white. They segregated themselves. Houston told them that. Had them leave and come in and were seated in a random way. It was a bold mood.
Houston brought the team together and they played as one for much of his time. Players liked him. It was a different morale.
So that was important. But so was having experienced players and quite a bit of talent, especially in the offensive and defensive line. They were tough, knew how to practice and weren’t afraid of anything. Give Danny Ford credit for that.
They had men like Russ Brown, Brandon Burlsworth, Chad Abernathy, Grant Garrett and Bobby Williams. That was an amazing core for an offensive line. The defensive line was Randy Garner, Melvin Bradley, Ryan Hale and C.J. McLain with backups like Curt Davis, Carlos Hall and D.J. Cooper. Joe Dean Davenport returned at tight end.
That’s the basis of a good SEC football team. You win with linemen, but there were good skill set guys like Madre Hill and Chrys Chukwuma at tailback. You had Marvin Caston and Nathan Norman at fullback. There was Anthony Lucas, Michael Snowden, Emanuel Smith and Michael Williams at wide receiver. All four of those were juniors.
Those 4-7 teams were young. But there was some talent there. They got beat up by a strong SEC. They arrived as juniors and seniors. Would that have happened with Danny Ford? Maybe not. But Danny and guys like Fitz Hill and Jim Washburn should be credited for recruiting some good players.