Culture Change

Bradley Sowell strolled into the interview room dressed as if he had just walked off a golf course -- Nike pullover, khaki shorts and sunglasses settled on the brim of his baseball cap. Nothing out of the ordinary, mind you. This was typical garb for his final summer in Oxford.

Because when he is not working out, Sowell can be found working on his golf game. Workouts are in the early-morning hours. The rest of the day, well, he mostly finds time to play a quick 18 holes. It's become almost a routine.

But this off-season hasn't been all fun and games for Sowell and the Ole Miss football team. After a forgettable 4-8 season, the atmosphere around the program has changed dramatically. Accountability has been a word bandied about often, with motivational devices like Houston Nutt's "Circle of Excellence" hanging from the walls of the indoor practice facility to drive the point home.

Sowell is all for it. Ole Miss has had no shortage of off-the-field issues over the last year. Linebacker Clarence Jackson and defensive end Delvin Jones, two underclassmen, were dismissed from the team not even two weeks ago.

"There's some serious accountability this year, from the locker room all the way out to the field," he said. "We even have to hang stuff in our locker a certain way now. It's just completely revamped. We have the partner system. If you got in trouble, they got in trouble. This year, people are getting called out left and right. That's why you've seen some people leave. That's how it goes."

Sowell, who has started 24 of 25 games at left tackle in the last two seasons, said he has always tried to keep his nose clean, that it has never been his style to find trouble off the field. "I'm a pretty straight guy," he said, noting he expects his teammates to do right, too.

Bradley Sowell
Chuck Rounsaville
But they haven't. Of the 22 players signed in 2010, only 13 remain.

Last season alone, two players, Rishaw Johnson and Tony Grimes, were kicked off the team. Jackson was suspended indefinitely after the fourth game for a burglary arrest. Jones was suspended, too, along with Melvin Harris, though both players were reinstated for spring practices.

"I want to go to bed at night knowing the guy I'm playing beside is doing the right things, because if he isn't, he's gone," Sowell said.

Sowell, a senior, said the leadership of the team this year could go a long way in changing the culture around the program. Sowell, Kentrell Lockett and Brandon Bolden are a few of the notable names in an established senior class.

"We have other guys, too, like Jason Jones, E.J. (Epperson), guys like that. They're really vocal leaders, as well," he said. "If we do the things that are right and everybody stays clear and doesn't miss class and do the crappy things, we can compete for sure."

Winning cures all ills. Ole Miss won but one Southeastern Conference game, with a few of its eight losses including Jacksonville State in the season-opener and Vanderbilt. The defense ranked near the bottom of the league in most statistical categories.

And the defense is thin again; its line having broken in an overhauled collection of tackles in the spring. The team has two new starters at linebacker. Cornerback Marcus Temple, who missed spring practices, and safety Damien Jackson are the lone starters returning in the secondary.

"(Defensive coordinator and linebackers) Coach (Tyrone) Nix had them playing really hard" in the spring, Sowell said. "I thought we were going to run over them pretty good this spring, ‘cause the d-line hasn't really played much. But Carlton Martin, that kid's strong. One-on-one, straight up strength-wise, you can't block him. You're going to have to double-team him. He's little right now. If he gets to 305, he's going to be one of the best players. He's dadgum strong. He's got some crazy strength.

"With Kentrell and Wayne on the edges, and Corey Gaines, Carlton Martin and Bryon Bennett, that's a lot more athletic defensive line than we've had. They're some defensive tackles that can run. You have Ralph Williams (at linebacker) that came on. That's some serious speed at linebacker with Joel Kight. With Damien in the secondary, we got a chance if everything comes together."

But the task won't be easy, possibly even unrealistic. D.T. Shackelford, the leader defensively, suffered a tear of the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. A return this season is doubtful at best.

Bradley Sowell
Matthew Sharpe
According to Sowell, success this season will likely come down to the offensive line, the deepest and strongest position group on the team.

And while Ole Miss is searching for a new starter at quarterback in place of Jeremiah Masoli, most of the offense returns. At wide receiver, Harris and Ja-Mes Logan -- second and third in receiving yards last season, respectively -- are back.

"I feel like it will come down to our o-line and running the football," Sowell said. "If we can keep the ball in our hands and run the ball... You saw how they did it in Miami with David Lee -- those long, methodical drives. If we can just score points and not worry about (the defense), they can hold people. We'll be fine."

Still, it all starts with the offensive line. Sowell said the group has three potential NFL Draft picks, even if he is a bit biased.

But there is no doubting the line's potential. Bobby Massie enters his third season at right tackle. Matt Hall emerged in the spring at right guard. Beside Sowell is fifth-year senior Alex Washington. A.J. Hawkins is again at center.

"You don't want to put much hype in it," Sowell said. "That kind of makes people nervous. You know how (offensive line) Coach (Mike) Markuson is, he's not going to let that hype get to us. He talks about the d-line last year, how they were hyped up and underperformed. He's worked the (heck) out of us. I feel like with Matt Hall and Bobby on the other side, that's a huge, strong line. And me and Tank on the left, we have the potential to be one of the best in the nation, for sure.

"(Patrick) Junen, (Jared) Duke, (Emmanuel) McCray, (Evan) Swindall, the thing about those guys is they can start easy. And Logan Clair, we probably have 10 guys that can step in and play. That's really good for this year. It hasn't been like that in a while, even when Mike Oher was here."

As it showed in the spring, Ole Miss will run more of a pro-style offense under new offensive coordinator David Lee. Sowell said it fits the team better, especially the offensive line.

"It's better for our offensive line. But at the same time, you've got to be able to mix in some of the other zone-read type stuff," he said. "I feel like we can do it all. I don't really know how good we're going to be. I can't really say that. But I know I've been here for a while, and this offensive line is one of the best we've had here in a while."

It's easy to sell goods in late May. Fall practices are three months away, the ups and downs of a season far off in the distance from the golf course. Regardless, Sowell remains optimistic, not allowing the dreadfulness that was his junior season to bring him down.

This is his last year. He was a key member of those back-to-back nine-win teams. That's what he wants again.

"Last year, the season we had, this year you really want to do everything right," Sowell said. "The attitude, you can't really joke around anymore. It's not as much a game as it was before. We went 4-8, so nothing's really funny anymore. Everybody's trying to do everything right, and work as hard as possible to get this sick feeling out of our stomach."

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