Trench Work

A lot of eyes will be on Bo Wallace, Laquon Treadwell, Cody Prewitt, Amari Cooper, Blake Sims, T.J. Yeldon, Landon Collins, etc., and rightly so - stars, all of them. But as the old football axiom goes, Saturday's game between Ole Miss and Alabama will hinge largely on the guys up front for both teams. Who wins in the trenches will go a long, long way to determining the victor the game.

It's human nature to watch the quarterbacks, running backs, the secondary, wideouts, all the "skill" positions, really, because that's where the main object of attention - the ball - is.

There's no doubt the skill players will have a large hand in the outcome, but to look beyond the trenches and the impact the "big guys" will have on the contest is a fatal mistake.

The Rebs' "Sackmen" will be a major test for the Crimson Tide offensive line and just as importantly, maybe moreso, will be the exam the Rebel OL will have to take against the Bama DL.

The stats show the Rebels at the top of the SEC food chain in total defense, allowing just 248.0 yards a game. Guess who is second? Alabama, allowing just 250.2 yards per outing. Scoring defense? The Rebs are number one allowing just 8.5 points per game; Bama number three giving up a scant 14.0 ppg.

While both have shown potent offenses, it goes without saying both will have their sternest tests against quality, if not outstanding, defenses.

How will the Rebel offensive line fare against the likes of JUCO transfers Jarran Reed, a 315-pound DT, and DE D.J. Pettway, not to mention big, active linebackers?

"Alabama puts their pads on the same way we do," said veteran Left Guard Aaron Morris.

It wasn't a jab at Alabama, nor fodder for the bulletin board. The tone was respectful, but Morris was making the point - in his own way - that the Rebs play in the SEC too and have the same unblemished record as the Tide.

The game Saturday will take all of Morris' skills, and those of his OL teammates, for the Rebels to have success.

"The first three games, I was knocking the rust off. Against Memphis I played a lot better," he said. "Coming off of ACL surgery and rehab, a lot of it was mental. It's like you don't want to hurt yourself again, so you kind of back off a little. It takes time just to turn loose and play ball. I think I am ready now."

The Rebels showed more of a spark in the running game against the Tigers and that improvement must continue against Alabama.

"We just have to get the job done. It's that simple, really," Morris continued. "Whatever is called, we have to do our jobs up front. Some people get nervous just because of the name Alabama, but they are regular guys just like we are, out there playing hard and doing their jobs. We just have to go at it and see what happens."

Morris sees more confidence on the squad than he did a year ago and that confidence, in part, has been derived from reaching a certain comfort level.

"Everyone knows the system now. Everyone knows what to do, so getting the job done has been easier because everyone is on the same page," he explained. "The more you understand, the faster you can play.

"We have more veterans now. Last year we played a lot of guys who had never played before. They had plays they knew and were comfortable with and ploays they didn't know. Now, they now what to do, which makes it easier to execute. The hesitation is gone."

The Rebels are trying to minimize the "game of the year" aura surrounding this contest because, for them, it's about staying in the moment.

"We have work to do between now and then. We have studying to do. This is a big game, but they are all big and as soon as we get finished with the Alabama game, we have to turn that one loose and get ready for Texas A&M and then Tennessee and so on," Morris said. "Coach (Hugh) Freeze always talks about focusing on every practice rep, every hour, every day. That's what we have to do to get ready. We can't get caught up in the hype."

] The offensive started the season as the question mark on the team. Some of those questions remain, but from Morris' standpoint, there has been steady improvement.

"Everyone has to remember, the Boise game was the first time any of us had played side-by-side with anybody. It takes time, and games, to build chemistry, to learn each other," he noted. "We are a unit now. We weren't at the start of the year."

Sophomore Laremy Tunsil, who plays next to Morris at left tackle, was a freshman All-American last year and has picked up where he left off from his rookie campaign.

He has faced a Tide DL once before. . .

"They have a typical Alabama front. Their D-linemen and linebackers are, as usual, very good," said L.T. the LT. "We didn't execute very well against them last year, but we are looking forward to rectifying that this year.

"We feel very confident, but we know we have to go out there and perform and execute."

Tunsil believes the offensive line is coming together at the right time.

"We've got some things to improve on, but we are much further along than we were at the first of August. We are more of a unit now," he added. "It will be important for us to be two-dimensional. We have to be able to mix it up and keep them off balance. If we can get a good mix going, I'm confident in the final result."

For Rebel DT Robert Nkemdiche, playing the Alabamas of the world is why he came to Ole Miss.

"As an athlete, you want to be challenged. You want to play against the best," Robert noted. "Our task is to not get caught up in all the hype. We have to stay focused in practice and focused in the game. It's a big game, it's exciting, it's everything I wanted when I chose to play at Ole Miss and play in the SEC, but you have to prepare the same for every team and it's all about focus and execution."

Nkemdiche respects the Tide OL.

"Guys like T.J. Yeldon, Amari Cooper and Blake Sims get the headlines for them, and they are great players who deserve the attention, but Alabama always has a really good offensive line and to think otherwise is not too smart," he added. "Again, it will be about keeping our focus and executing. A lot will be determined in the trenches.

"We knew we were capable of a game like Memphis, but we finally put it all together and did all our assignments the way we are coached. We feel we have the talent to do that again if we execute our assignments and do what we know how to do."

Nkemdiche has drawn some positive vibes from last year's game against Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

"We made so many rookie mistakes and had so many busts and really the game was determined by two long runs by them," Robert said. "We have a whole different mindset this year. We know what to do now because of experience. We are playing sound football now and have a little bit of a chip on our shoulders.

"The expectations are a lot different this year."

Nkemdiche knows it is going to be a wild atmosphere, something he's looking forward to.

"Rebel Nation is going to be out in full force and we have a great fan base that will be behind us," he closed. "It's going to be intense, but a lot of fun. This is what I envisioned when I signed here."

Yes, the spotlight will be on Wallace and Treawell and Sims and Cooper and Yeldon, et al, but the influence of the trench work, for both teams, will go a long way in determining the winner.

The Rebs sound ready for the challenge.

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