Rebel front mixing things up with Texas A&M up next

A struggling Ole Miss offensive line gets its best player back this week.

But the reshuffling doesn’t stop at Laremy Tunsil.

Head coach Hugh Freeze said Monday the front will take on a different look Saturday against Texas A&M, with senior guard Justin Bell moving to center full-time, Fahn Cooper - who filled in for Tunsil during his seven-game suspension - shifting back to right tackle and sophomores Rod Taylor and Jordan Sims set to man right guard. Freshman Javon Patterson will man the left side, where he’s started four games.

It’s a much-need shakeup for a group that has paved the way for an Ole Miss offense ranked 71st in the country in rushing - a number made worse by the fact the Rebels gained 818 of their 1,170 net yards in wins over UT-Martin, Fresno State and New Mexico State. They managed all of 40 yards on 24 carries in their 37-24 loss at Memphis last week.

Ole Miss is No. 126 out of 128 teams in college football on rushing downs (downs where you can reasonably expect to call a successful running play), and 101st on sacks given up on passing downs.

“That's one of the strengths we have is versatility,” Bell said. “You saw (Robert) Conyers move from center to tackle, and he did a tremendous job at tackle. Me and him picked up a big time twist during the (Memphis) game, and we got a big play out there to Laquon (Treadwell). Our versatility up front has always been a plus for us. Going into the next phase of the season, finishing up with me possibly playing center a lot, it's just next man up.”

Conyers, the team’s starting center, was lost for the year to an ACL injury suffered against Memphis, thus necessitating the position change for Bell. Center isn’t completely foreign to him, either. He took snaps there during fall camp in August.

Bell is currently competing with Ben Still,  who made his second straight start at center Saturday.

“We'll see how it goes,” Bell said. “I just have to trust my snaps. Sometimes the snaps come back there a little too fast, but we worked on it yesterday, and they looked pretty good. Right now with Conyers being down it gives me a chance to really focus on it and work at it and hopefully make a debut at center.

“I enjoy playing center. It kind of comes natural. I'm going against the best every day in practice. I'm pretty sure that transition to the game won't be too tough on me. Coaches spoke on it and said they love the fact that I know the offense and I know the terminology. It's just getting the game reps. We'll see how that goes.”

Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly said he’s comfortable with Bell getting him the ball.

“He does a great job at center,” said Kelly, the SEC leader in passing yards (2,234), total offense (337.3 per game) and touchdown passes (16). 

“He’s a fifth-year senior. He knows what he’s doing out there. He’s been around the game, he understands it. Being a center is almost like the quarterback on the line. Him being a leader on the offensive line, he gets those boys correct every time he’s out there. He knows exactly what he’s doing, and I’m excited wherever he plays.”

Of course, having Tunsil back in the fold is the biggest boost.

The 6-foot-5, 305-pound Tunsil, a junior, was named to preseason All-American and All-SEC teams by a number of national magazines, including Sporting News and Athlon. He was an All-American second team selection last season, and he’s allowed just two sacks in 23 starts over the last two seasons. He’s widely considered a top-5 selection in the 2016 NFL Draft. 

“It's bitter-sweet,” Bell said. “It’s always hard losing a brother (Conyers), but getting Laremy back is the sweet part of it. He adds that extra little push, another leader we need up front. All we can do is pray for Conyers, pray he comes back full go for next season.”

“We’ve all been waiting for the moment until he gets back with us this season,” tight end Evan Engram said. “He’s been preparing for this week, this moment when he didn’t know it was going to come. It’s definitely good to see him back in some action. Last week, he got some live action getting some offensive-defensive drills. It’s definitely good to have him to help us out and we can become a more consistent and better unit.”

Tunsil won’t have time to settle back into his starting role. He’s set to square off with star Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett, who blocked a punt and recorded a sack, a pass deflection and five tackles in the Aggies’ loss to Alabama en route to being named SEC defensive lineman of the week. 

Garrett has 20 sacks in his first 18 career games, and he leads the SEC with 8.5 sacks this season. He was a second-team All-SEC pick as a true freshman after totaling 14 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks.

“Anytime you have a top-5 NFL Draft pick on the team definitely helps it,” Kelly said. “Everybody knows how good he is, for sure. Definitely is going to help out tremendously, but a lot of those younger guys got a lot of experience, too, so that’s definitely going to help.”

“He had a lot of energy,” Bell said of Tunsil this week in practice. “He brought a lot of that talkative leadership out of the guys. You could just see in his eyes he's excited to be back, and we're happy to have him back. He didn't change who he was. He was always upbeat, high spirits, kept a smile on his face. I feel like he handled it well, probably a lot better than I would have.”

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