By Billy Watkins
Ole Miss’ Jake Springer probably won’t be overwhelmed Thursday night by the pressure that comes with playing in an Egg Bowl.
He’s already played in the most celebrated college football rivalry in the world: Army vs. Navy. As a junior outside linebacker or striker as the position is known at Navy, Springer helped lead the Midshipmen to a 31-7 win over the Black Knights in Philadelphia, Pa. with seven tackles, one sack and 2.5 tackles for a loss.
So what is playing in that game like?
“Surreal,” Springer said in a phone interview. “It’s the kind of game that you dream about playing in as a kid. We play the game at an NFL stadium (usually Philadelphia). It’s packed out with 70,000 fans. It’s crazy, all the pageantry that goes with it. You almost don’t even recognize it when you’re on the field. The president often attends the game.
“It’s an honor to have been a part of that and play in front of so many people who have a connection to the military or an appreciation for it. You learn the expectations that go with that game as soon as you arrive at the Academy.
“But you know what? Army was one of the most comfortable game weeks we had. No matter who we were playing each week of the season — even if the team ran a four-wide or five-wide offense — we would always carve out time to work on Army’s (triple option) offense.
“When you are that familiar with it, it’s almost like playing backyard football back home with your boys.”
From watching him on the service team after transferring in 2020, Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin knew Springer was special.
When Kiffin was asked how his defense might improve after surrendering 93 points in its first two SEC games, he replied with two words: “Jake Springer.” (Springer was out after suffering an upper body injury in the season-opening victory over Louisville.)
After the defense played considerably better in a 31-26 victory Oct. 16 at Tennessee, Kiffin was asked the key to the defense’s resurgence. “Jake Springer,” he answered.
Yes, Springer returned and contributed 11 tackles, a sack and one stop for a loss.
Springer, 23, has played a major part in the Rebels’ defensive improvement. His 44 tackles do not truly measure his impact. Teammates refer to him as a leader. Linebacker Ashanti Cistruck offered another description: “He’s a beast.”
Along with linebacker Chance Campbell and defensive end Sam Williams, he has helped galvanize a unit that badly needed a guy to say “follow me.”
Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo isn’t surprised by Springer’s success in the SEC.
“I love that kid and I’m really happy for him and doing well in D.J. (Durkin’s) system over there. Lane gave him a chance. I’m grateful he landed at obviously a great place and playing well,” Niumatalolo said in a Zoom interview. “He was a phenomenal player for us and a perfect fit in (defensive coordinator) Coach (Brian) Newberry’s system.”
Before the 2019 season, Newberry moved Springer from safety to outside linebacker. Springer said it allowed him to make more plays. He is at the same position for the Rebels.
“I think for me it was definitely a big move and I’m appreciative for Coach Newberry seeing the versatility in me and giving me that chance at Navy,” said Springer, who is 6-foot-1, 205 pounds. “It helped with my football IQ, my technique. It took me from just being a safety to where I feel like I’m just a ball player now.”
His first year at the position, he led the Navy in sacks (8) and tackles for loss (16).
It is surprising that Springer, who grew up in Kansas City, had only two FBS scholarship offers out of high school — Army and Navy.
“I don’t know, maybe he wasn’t the flat-out burner that schools are looking for,” Niumatalolo said. “But he had it all for us. He could’ve played on the offensive side of the ball. He has really good hands. I see he’s returned some punts for Ole Miss (when Dontario Drummond was injured), and he did that for us, too.
“And I think the one thing you can’t tell about a kid until you coach him every day is he’s a really smart player. I remember in spring practice once, I was calling plays. We would get to the line of scrimmage and he’s calling them out. ’Watch it, it’s coming right here!’ I mean, I’m the head coach and I can’t yell at him for that, but I wanted to say, ‘Will you be quiet Springer?’ ”
Following his junior season, Springer decided to enter the transfer portal. He told Navy beat writer Bill Wagner of the Capital Gazette that he wanted to play in the NFL and felt like he needed to compete in the SEC to show his talent.
“We were hoping he would stay,” Niumatalolo said. “But I understand, I’ve been here a long time. It’s not for everybody, I get that. But when we saw he was going to leave, we tried to help him. And it was interesting that he had quite a few people looking at him. We had tape. And I’m sure coaches looked at it and went ‘Whoa!’ They could see he played well against some really good teams.”
That is one of the reasons he chose Navy. “They play in a great conference (American Athletic), play Notre Dame every year,” Springer said. “ I learned a lot being up there as far as discipline, as far as being a man. I do appreciate my time up there for sure.”
He chose Ole Miss over Michigan, Missouri, Notre Dame, Texas Tech, Illinois, Iowa State and others.
“I liked the buzz and the coaching staff with Coach Kiffin coming in and Coach Durkin and Coach (Chris) Partridge,” Springer said. “I was hearing a lot of good things about those guys from some of the connections I had through Navy.
“It’s an SEC team. It was a lot of excitement around this program, and talking to the coaches, listening to their confidence and what they were building here, I wanted to be a part of it.”
So far, he’s part of a 9-2 Ole Miss team that is ranked No. 8 nationally and vying for a New Year’s Six bowl game. But the Rebels will likely have to beat Mississippi State, which has won four of its last five games and looking to improve its own bowl possibilities.
State, 7-4, is favored at home among the cowbells by two points.
Springer watched the Egg Bowl last season — a 31-24 Ole Miss victory in Oxford.
“Just like Army-Navy, I feel like the Egg Bowl is one of Top 5 rivalries in the country,” Springer said. “And being around the one last year, seeing how the players handled that rivalry, it was nice to get a feel for it and see what a fun rivalry it is.
“It’s a pride game because it is so close to home. Lot of guys growing up here, it’s Ole Miss or it’s Mississippi State. Same with a lot of guys who go to Navy or one of the other military academies. Growing up, they had to pick a side. And knowing that any year, the outcome of that game is like flipping a coin. That’s what makes a rivalry.”