It will be critical to the 2014 Rebel football team's success for the offensive line to be formidable. With the start of spring practice Wednesday, that developmental process starts now. Read OL Coach Matt Luke's thoughts inside as spring training rapidly approaches.

There's little argument around the Ole Miss football office and in the Rebel fan base, the biggest transition on the Reb football team from the 2013 season into spring training will be the offensive line.

Veteran Center Evan Swindall, who anchored the OL for three years; versatile Emmanuel McCray, who could play either tackle slots or guard; Jared Duke, who started at LG after Aaron Morris went down; Patrick Junen, who had a lot of experience; and Pierce Burton, the reliable and effective starting right tackle the past two years, have used up their eligibility, leaving Offensive Line Coach Matt Luke the task of introducing several "newbies" to a handful of returnees to try to form a cohesive, functioning unit for 2014

That task starts Wednesday when spring training cranks up.

"I'm excited about our prospects," said Luke, now in his third year of leading the Ole Miss forward wall. "We've got some proven players returning, but we are going to have to mix in some younger guys and new guys to the mix and see how it goes.

"The biggest goals of the spring, obviously, will be finding a center and a right tackle to take Evan and Pierce's place. Those are the key areas we have to fill. It's going to be challenging, but I'm really looking forward to it."

Matt Luke
Chuck Rounsavile

At center, Luke has three main candidates in mind – Ben Still, Robert Conyers and Justin Bell – and one – Chase Hughes – who will get "some center reps." Back in the fall, he had talked about the possibility of trying Austin Golson there, but that idea has been shelved because Golson will go from right guard to right tackle this spring.

"I feel confident we will be more athletic at center, regardless who wins the job, but we lose so much experience and none of them have perfected the shotgun snap yet, something we kind of took for granted with Evan," Luke explained. "There's a lot to that and we've been spoiled a little bit because we had Evan, Those guys have worked on it and I think we will be fine, but I want to see how things go with live bullets being fired at them."

For Still, the challenge will be consistency. For Conyers, learning the ins and outs of the position, Luke assessed.

"Ben has to show me every-play toughness. He's been a little light most of his career, but now he's 295 pounds. He's a very good athlete who runs well and has paid his dues. I think he is ready for his shot," he continued. "Conyers is longer and taller. He's also about 295, which is a little undersized for tackle but a prototypical center. He's had a good offseason. I'm excited about both those guys.

"I'm going to move Justin to left guard because Aaron Morris will not go through any of the live spring drills. He's only six months out of knee surgery, so he can't go this spring. Justin can play either guard and center. He's smart and he knows what to do. It's good to have someone who can play all three of the inside positions."

At RT, the best laid plans have gone somewhat awry with Christian Morris tearing his Achilles and JUCO signee Fahn Cooper not getting eligible for spring semester. Enter Golson.

"We need tackle bodies and Austin's natural position is tackle. He'll be backed up by redshirt freshman Davion Johnson. Austin will be limited the first three practices before spring break, because of him rehabbing his shoulder from offseason surgery, but he should get the green light after we resume practice after spring break," Luke stated. "I'm pumped up to see Austin at tackle and I think he is excited about the move too."

Last year, true freshman stalwart Laremy Tunsil not only manned the all-important left tackle slot, he owned it. After surgery after the Egg Bowl, he is now full go for spring training. He's a given, but what of the backups?

"We are going to play a little musical chairs there with Conyers, Hughes and Johnson and we have a walkon her named Talbot Buys, a 6-9, 270-pounder, who started at Holmes CC the past two years," noted Luke. "We have two really, really good walkons in Buys and Chris Frigo from Gulf Coast CC. He's a 6-4, 320pound G/C who was also a JUCO starter and also had offers to play elsewhere. We are fortunate to have those two. I had Chris in a camp at Duke when I was there and he's a tough, tough young man. We'll see how they develop. Talbot has three years left and can redshirt. He has a good upside, he just needs to get bigger on his tall frame."

At right guard, redshirt frosh Daronte Bouldin is going to get a chance to shine and his competition will be converted defensive lineman Carlton Martin.

Carlton Martin
Chuck Rounsaville

"They're two of the strongest and most explosive players on the team. I think Daronte will make a big jump this spring and Carlton is a heady player who should be able to learn the position even though he has never played on the OL before," said Luke. "I'm anxious to see Daronte blossom and to see what Carlton can do. Both will get a lot of reps in spring to see what they can do. I think Carlton could be very good in the pulling game because of his explosiveness."

Behind Bell at left guard will be Hughes and Frigo.

"Obviously, when Aaron comes back, he will be the guy and Justin will move back to right guard, but for spring purposes, that how things will shake out for now," Luke said. "I've got some guys who give me some flexibility, like Conyers, Golson and Bell, so that's a plus."

Luke's going to try several combinations in spring, the time to experiment.

"Spring is when you find out who can do what and nail some things down for fall," he said. "I do have three or four guys coming in that I'm really pumped up about – Cooper, Rod Taylor, Jordan Sims come to mind – who I think can help next fall, but the approach you have to take is that what you come out of spring training with is what you will play in the fall and anyone that comes in later is a bonus. Aaron is another one. You never want to count on guys who aren't here, but I can't help but be excited about those guys when they do get here."

Luke wishes Wednesday was already here.

"We will have less experience, but overall I think we are going to have more talent, more athletic ability, across the front. And if things go well, we will have more numbers," he closed. "It will be fun watching them grow and develop.

"I'm not overlooking the fact, either, that guys like Laremy, Austin and Justin, who got a lot of playing time last year, will be one year better."

Needless to say, and being repetitive, one of the big focal points of spring training will be the development of the offensive line.

Ready, set, go – Wednesday.

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