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Burns eyes improvement in the secondary

Petre Thomas/The Daily Mississippian


After a year when the Rebels secondary finished near the bottom of the SEC in every statistic, head coach Houston Nutt knew he had to make a change.

That something was bringing on new defensive backs coach Keith Burns. 

Burns, who is entering his 28th year of coaching, was the defensive coordinator at USC, Arkansas and San Jose State before coaching the Kansas State secondary last season.

Ole Miss also added some new talent to the position with the signings of junior college transfer Wesley Pendelton, freshman Senquez Golson and freshman Nick Brassell, who will likely get snaps at both wide receiver and defensive back this season.

With the influx of talent, expectations are that the unit will be much improved in 2011, coming off a season in which Ole Miss ranked 11th in the Southeastern Conference in passing yards per game, given up at 246.3 and dead last in the SEC in interceptions with six.

“We’ve just got great competition,” Burns said of the defensive backs. “In the spring, we were a little bit handcuffed because we didn’t have Marcus (Temple), but we’ve got Marcus back, Charles Sawyer, Wesley Pendelton and got a couple of young freshmen that are pushing and are really talented.”

Temple, a senior, missed spring practice due to a sports hernia but returned for fall camp and is pleased with the defensive back unit as a whole. A starter in all 12 games last season, Temple has taken on a leadership role in the young secondary.

“All of the young guys look up to me, and I like that,” Temple said. “They get to come to me and ask questions.”

Temple said he appreciates what the young defensive backs need because he had some people that he looked up to when he arrived.

One of those young guys is Golson, who turned down a lucrative offer to play professional baseball from the Boston Red Sox after being drafted in the eighth round of the 2011 Major League Baseball draft.

Golson impressed Burns during fall camp and has worked himself into the cornerback rotation with Temple, Sawyer and Pendleton.

“He is a guy that’s willing to learn,” Burns said of Golson. “He’s very coachable -— talented and raw — but he’s got everything it takes to be special.”

While Golson and the other newcomers are learning on the fly, much of the focus in fall practice has been on sophomore Charles Sawyer. He looks to build on last season, where he displayed some inconsistency, but he also had flashes of brilliance.

“What I’ve worked on from last season is just technique and fundamentals — ball skills and looking back for the ball,” Sawyer said. 

“Everything that a corner needs to be great.”

The play of the newcomers has also stood out to Sawyer, who said their play has raised the level of the returning players.

“The freshmen have come in and made plays,” Sawyer said. 

Sawyer said competition is what this is all about.

“Look at the Philadelphia Eagles — that is how they are getting better,” Sawyer said of Eagles players Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Asante Samuel. “They have three great corners, and it’s that competition that makes a great player reach his maximum potential.”

Even though the defensive backs are young — one senior in the rotation, and a lack of depth at the position, Burns is happy with the unit looking at the season opener against BYU on Sept. 3.

“You couldn’t be in a better situation as a coach,” Burns said. 

“We just have got to continue to get better every day. 

“We’ve got a different standard now, and it’s good to see that they are responding to the challenge.”