Coming Around

For much of spring training, the offensive line was struggling, but toward the end they started to make progress and show signs they can be a competent group, despite a dire lack of depth. Read about it inside.

At the beginning of spring training, despite warnings that the offensive line would be the last to come around in the new offensive system, there was a visible level of frustration on Co-Offensive Coordinator/Offensive Line Coach Matt Luke's face.

As spring wound down, that look came back every now and then, but it wasn't as often.

"We are finally starting to get better in developing a unit. Our first five have been in there together most of the spring," said Luke. "Now, we are looking for consistency. We have shown flashes of doing things the right way. Now, we have to do it every down.

"The fast tempo has been good for us. When a young man feels they have an advantage, which this system should give us, he is going to work hard to take advantage of that edge. They are now buying into the conditioning aspect and understand the benefits of being in great shape in this fast-paced offense. I see more belief and I see a better understanding of what is going on around them. It's all a work in progress, but we are seeing good progress now. Early on, it was frustrating, but now I see advancement."

At left tackle, Emmanuel McCray has taken charge of the top spot, followed by walkon Derrick Wilson and Mitch Hall.

"I was worried about Emmanuel's knees when I first got here. Can he stay healthy? He's had some issues, but he has not missed one rep of anything. He's a natural tackle and football is very important to him," Matt noted. "I am very pleased with his mindset, he's trying to be a leader, he's vocal and he understands the game. His biggest weakness is his lower body strength because he can't squat much due to his knees, but he's had a good spring.

"Derrick is an unbelievable kid. He didn't get here until a couple of weeks ago, so he is behind mentally, but he has a tremendous work ethic. He can provide some depth for us, maybe even at center or guard. He plays the game the way it's supposed to be played and that's how he has earned his way into the two-deep. Once he learns everything, he will only get better."

Matt Luke
File Photo

Hall has been playing mostly on the right side at tackle, but he's also worked at LT.

"Mitch can do a lot better. I have challenged him lately and he has responded a little, but I need to see more tenacity and he needs to get tuned in to what we are doing better."

At left guard, Aaron Morris projects as the starter with Justin Bell being in the mix and Chris Gill being number three.

"Aaron is very, very talented. Football is important to him, but he has to be more consistent and learn how to finish. I see what he is capable of doing and want him to be that way all the time. We are working on that consistency and playing faster, which will come along as his understanding of what we are doing increases. He was much better in the second scrimmage than he was in the first – night and day. His improvement was off the charts," Luke said. "Justin was hurt in the last scrimmage, but I have been pleased with him. He has to lose some weight, but he has been really good in spurts. He's explosive and he's very intelligent. His footwork is pretty good, he's just 20 pounds overweight and this tempo gets him. Justin will have to provide some depth for us. Football is very important to him, and I would have no problem putting him in to get us out of a game.

"Chris has not gotten many reps, but when he does, he plays hard. He is working to improve himself and he's also doing some snapping to try to give us some depth there. He's just behind Bell and Morris physically right now."

At center, Evan Swindall has command of the first team while Chase Hughes and Ethan Hutson round out the position.

"Evan has done a good job of learning the offense. He plays like the coaches' son he is – he's very smart," Luke stated. "Evan can take it to another level though, and needs to before we start the fall. He needs to play more fast twitch and with more of a motor. When you are undersized, you have to play that way. He has to play relentlessly all the time. He has confidence, his snaps have been good, he has adjusted well to the shotgun, but I need to see him take it to the next level to be a true center.

"Chase is kind of like Evan in needing to be more physical and relentless all the time. He struggled a little with shotgun snaps, but is getting better there. He's not a natural center – he is adjusting to being a center. I challenged him in the last scrimmage to be more physical and he was. Now he has to do it every play.

"Ethan is very intelligent, almost to a fault. I think it gets in the way of him turning loose and playing. He understands concepts. He just needs to get stronger and become more aggressive."

At right guard, veteran A.J. Hawkins has made a good impression on Luke.

"A.J. is the most experienced of my group and it shows. He's probably the most football-smart guy I have in terms of adjusting to things. He's a natural football player and is a good athlete," Matt noted. "He needs to get stronger in the offseason so he can win some one-on-one battles. When he played center, he wasn't faced with as many one-on-one battles, so that's an adjustment for him. He's a good competitor. He's been my best overall player in the spring, but I would like to see him become more of a leader at times.

Jared Duke and Corey Gaines are next on the RG totem pole.

A.J. Hawkins
File Photo

"Duke is a big guy who is strong. He's good on the double teams, but he's got to work on his feet so he can win the one-on-one pass protection battles. We are not always in slide protection and when we are not, and are one-on-one, he's got to win those and to do that he will have to improve his footwork. He is a space eater though and he does do some good things.

"Corey has been rotating at both guards and is an athlete. He is strong in the weight room. Having bounced around from defense to offense has hurt him. He is struggling conceptually and with assignments."

At right tackle, JUCO transfer Pierce Burton has buckled down the top spot for now. The versatile Patrick Junen is next and big Terrell Brown rounds out the position.

"Pierce is conscientious and wants to do well. He's a good athlete who can move his feet," Matt said. "He has the best finish mentality of my group. He's got a little nasty in him. Pierce needs to get better technique-wise in using his hands and he has to play lower or it's going to bite him sooner or later in this league. He and A.J. do a great job communicating on the right side. They are both very bright.

"Junen has played in a lot of different places and would probably be our sixth guy right now. He can play tackle or guard. He's a great kid who loves football. He works hard at it. He just needs to work on being more physical. He needs to play with better pad level and use his hands better. We will count on him in the fall. He needs a big summer in the weight room."

"Terrell is a guy you really pull for. I love him. He struggles moving his feet because he is so big. There are things he does do well. I need to get him more reps to fine-tune him and really see what he can and can't do. Football is important to him and there is a role for him, I believe."

Note: JUCO transfer D.J. Bailey has dressed out for some practices but is rehabbing a knee injury and has been very limited in what he can do.

Analysis: The first week or so of spring training, this group looked, to be kind, lost. Luke was patient and toward the end of spring the OL started showing signs and spurts of competence. They haven't done enough to develop a swagger yet, but they aren't hanging their heads now either. Based on effort and spring improvement, this unit deserves a C grade, but everyone involved knows they will have to take another leap, or two, when fall rolls around to be an effective group.

This is the third in a series of articles printed in the Grove Bowl issue of The Ole Miss Spirit. We will reprint them all here.

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