Opportunity Arises

Ole Miss gets back to work tonight preparing for its bowl game against Pittsburgh on Jan. 5 in Birmingham. Patrick Junen said the Rebels are focused on not just being glad to be there but on winning it.

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"Anytime you get here (bowl eligible), you want to win," said the junior offensive lineman. "We want that 7-6 mark. That's important. I know the guys are fired up to get after Pittsburgh.

"Our fans have been buying tickets like crazy," Junen continued, with at least 30,000 and perhaps as many as 40,000 Rebel fans expected for the noon kickoff at historic Legion Field a week from Saturday. "It's a big deal to go over there and get that win."

Certainly it's a big deal for all the players, but perhaps even moreso for guys like Junen. The 6-foot-3, 320-pounder hails from Huntsville, Ala., not all that far north of Birmingham. That being the case, Junen is doubly excited for the bowl game.

However the versatile and talented player said he's not the only one who has prepared hard for one last game this season. It's been more than a month since Ole Miss defeated Mississippi State 41-24 in the Battle for the Golden Egg. Junen said the players and coaches have been all about having fun and preparing thoroughly for the upcoming game against the Panthers.

"Everybody's had great energy," he said. "The coaches have been firing us up and keeping us going. A lot of times it's hard to get yourself going during this time, this down time without an opponent this far away. But it's been a really good opportunity to get younger guys in there and especially for me to get more reps and get more comfortable at different positions."

That it has. Junen has become an important part of the Rebel offense, and it's bowl preparations like these that give the coaches a chance to see what he can do throughout the offensive line.

"I've gotten to play all sorts of different positions," said Junen, who was in a backup role this season for the Rebels. "I just wanted to help the team out in any way I can. Especially with this fast tempo offense, just giving one of the guys a break to keep going at full capacity, and just however I can help the team."

Junen said being in so many different positions on the offensive front has its rewards. But there are also challenges he faces in doing so.

"It definitely has its challenges, especially going from the right side to the left side. Switching stances, you kind of want to get back into a habit. But I've been blessed with Coach (Matt) Luke giving me chances to do it and also helping me out. So it's really worked well."

Junen said he's become a much stronger player this season, and the teaching that's been done has been the key.

Patrick Junen
File Photo

"My strength has been helped so much by Coach (Paul) Jackson," he said. "It's incredible how much he's helped me out. That and Coach Luke working on fundamentals. This is just a launching pad for me and for the team."

Junen said the offensive line as a whole has developed well as the season has gone along. He's been so impressed with the progress they've made and the improvements for the whole offense.

"I've just been blown away how much the guys have come together and gelled," he said. "A lot of that comes from players like A.J. Hawkins, just being a leader and a continuous great player on the line and helping us all out. It's been a really great experience seeing that come together."

Luke said the early bowl practices were good to see a lot of different looks and a lot of different people.

"It gives us a chance to see some people like Junen in there, look at some different people in some different places," he said. "Patrick's been working at guard and tackle. (It's given us the chance to) kind of see the starting five for next year. I mostly played six (players) this year. I'm hoping to play eight next year."

One in the mix is Junen. Luke is excited about his future.

"He's really come on," said the former Rebel offensive lineman turned coach. "He played really well the last game against Mississippi State. He played well against LSU. And he's had great (bowl) practices. So I'm really pleased with his attitude and how he's come on. The playing time at the end of the year seems to have propelled him."

The improvement of the offensive line and the success of the team as a whole have been amazing to Junen and maybe something the players could not have predicted back in the spring and summer.

"Everybody was just wanted to see how we'd all fit into this offense," he said. "And there were all the different concerns on the team as to how things would go. It's just been a blessing that God's given us the ability to come out and do what we did and show our fans we're still here."

And still playing one more game this season.

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