July 14, 2008

Will Cornell return at 100 percent?

When Jonathan Cornell took to the practice fields during the spring, he knew what to expect. He just didn't know if he'd be able to handle it.

"The trainers were telling me there might be a little stinging here and stinging there, which there was, but none to the point where I just couldn't go anymore," Cornell said. "It was always gone by the next play, so that was encouraging."

The junior linebacker from LaPuente, Calif., not only got through the first contact since suffering nerve damage in his neck and back area in Ole Miss' loss to Missouri last season, he thrived.

"It's all better now," Cornell said Monday.

Cornell is up to a solid 230 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame. He beat out Tony Fein and Chris Bowers in the spring to claim the starting middle linebacker job, creating an athletic trio of linebackers that includes Ashlee Palmer and Allen Walker.

"I think my natural position is middle," Cornell said. "I see things a lot better. I feel like I can do the best job in the middle."

Cornell just can't wait to get back into a game after such a long layover.

"I'm pretty anxious to get back out there," Cornell said. "Summer's gone back. I'm just working out and going to summer school and trying to gain some weight."

Much of the attention during the spring was on Ole Miss' offense, thanks to the arrival of Houston Nutt, offensive coordinator Kent Austin and the coming-out party of quarterback Jevan Snead. However, practice observers noticed that the Rebels' defense, led by defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix, began to dominate practices at the end of spring.

"Coach Nix will get you going pretty good," Cornell said. "Schematically, not too much is different. As far as philosophy and aggression level and how we want to play the game, it's through the roof. We plan to play a little more free without thinking so much. We know we can make a mistake and not lose our spot or get ripped into pieces. I think people are a little happier and freer and that leads to instinctive football."

Still, outside expectations are low for the Rebels' defense, one that _ on paper, at least _ appears to be thin at linebacker and shaky at cornerback. That doesn't bother Cornell, who believes the Ole Miss defense will provide fans with a pleasant surprise this fall.

"If I was to go down, I know that Tony played last year and Chris is more than capable," Cornell said. "If one of the outside linebackers went down, I played outside before and we have some incoming freshmen coming in. The parts are interchangeable, I think.

"I'm not worried about (doubters). We see that they're not on the bandwagon now, but we'll show them what we can do and everyone will want to get on. I'll remember who was there and who wasn't. It doesn't really make a difference to me. I'm not bitter about it."

Cornell is also confident that Ole Miss, a team that has failed to challenge for a bowl bid during his career, is ready to come out on the positive side of some games this season. For the Rebels, Cornell said, it's all about learning how to win.

"We never really lose our confidence," Cornell said. "I'm sure you've met the receivers. It's just that we have to learn how to win and close out a game. As far as confidence, we don't lack any but we have to learn how to win. It's just being consistent and accountable. When it gets to the fourth quarter, that's when you really have to turn it on. There's really nothing else to say. We just have to do it. We're like Nike."

Should the Rebels break through this fall, it will mean more to Cornell now than it might have earlier in his career. Why? Because Mississippi has become home for the California native -- despite the wilting humidity.

"The first few months, I didn't think it was this hot here, this humid," Cornell said, laughing. "As far as being in (culture) shock, I'd rather live out here. It's a lot slower. People are much nicer. The hospitality is a lot more. It's very nice here. The first two-a-days, I was really considering whether this was for me."

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