When taking a look at the Rebel offensive line through five spring practices, very little resembles last year's effort at those five critical positions.
Art Kehoe, who coached at Miami for a quarter of a century, has taken over for departed George DeLeone in guiding the Rebel forward wall.
Kehoe brings a high level of intensity to the table, but it's done in a positive way the Rebel offensive linemen are responding to. Art, from the scrimmage we observed, is not a screamer. He's a teacher. That's not to say he isn't demanding or won't get in a player's face when needed, but he's just as quick to put his arm around a player who is having difficulty as he is to admonish. The result, to this point, is a group of OL who seem more tuned in and turned on about football.
The Rebels are still using some zone blocking schemes, but Kehoe has also introduced the gap scheme which includes more double teams at the point of attack and a more aggressive, attacking style of play. Art is teaching the Rebel OL to play lower for leverage purposes and to fire out an attack defenders. Rather than having the Reb OL bulk up, he's asking them to be "lean, conditioned, strong and quick."
"We will not have a lot of ready-to-play depth," said Kehoe. "Consequently, I want our guys in great shape. That will help them avoid injury. A lot of injuries in the OL take place when players are tired. We need to avoid that at all costs."
Kehoe's brand of coaching has caught fire with the Rebel OL candidates. Several have already expressed a "run through a brick wall for him" attitude to me that was not the case last year. He's also keeping things fairly simple, so the confusion that was evident last year is not a hurdle this spring. Sure, there is plenty to learn, but Kehoe's pace has been one of patience and he's not clogging up their minds with too much to learn. Hence, the OL is gaining confidence and has direction. They also have smiles on their faces.
Having said all that, which is all positive from our view, OL play, like every position, ultimately comes down ability level of the available candidates.
After losing stalwart tackles Tre' Stallings and Bobby Harris to graduation, and not having a lot of success up front even with them in the lineup last year, there are question marks. But my opinion is a little different than a lot of fans.
While I'm not advocating we are loaded with All-Americans, I believe the talent level is better than some Ole Miss fans believe. I also thought that last year, but believed they played in a fog most of last year - a state of confusion that never allowed them to come together as a cohesive unit.
Kehoe's first task is to find the best five OL on the team and then find positions for them. I'm one who believes there are five good OL on this team - somewhere. Some are at different stages of their development and some don't have much - if any - experience, but the raw material is available for success, especially with Kehoe's influence on them to get the job done.
At tackle, sophomore Michael Oher is learning a totally new position after playing guard last season. Left tackle at that - the hardest OL position to play. Michael's charge is to learn to play in space and cut off pass rush specialists from the DE slot, normally one of the best athletes on the opposing defense. He won't get that down pat immediately, but he will by September and that's what counts in the whole scheme of things. He's got too many tools and too much desire not to.
Whether he will stay there or not is still a question, but junior Marcus Cohen is currently Oher's backup. Marcus believes he has finally come of age and is ready to make his mark as a realiable player. For the first time in his career, he believes he's viable, which is half the battle.
At right tackle, David Traxler showed his mettle last year when he missed very little time while trying to mend from a painful neck injury. He also got some valuable playing time. Trax was the first to say last season that he needed upper body strength. He gained a lot of that in the offseason. His movement has always been good. Trax says if he can gain as much strength in the summer as he did in the winter offseason program, he should be a finished product ready for SEC battles. We concur.
Reid Neely backs up Trax for now and is showing promise for a young OL, even though he hasn't practiced since last summer and is coming off a serious Achilles tendon injury that took nearly eight months to rehab. Neely is green, but game and he has the size and strength and mobility OL coaches look for. It's just a matter of time for him. How much is up to him.
Currently at the guard slots, Darryl Harris moves back to OG from last year's attempt at center. Darryl's natural position is guard. He should blossom there this year. He needs to continue to get stronger in the offseason, but Kehoe's style of attacking fits Darryl's OL personality.
The Rebel OL needed a "surprise" or two. Apparently, at least in the early going, Maurice Miller is supplying that element. He's moved up to first team RG and seems to be thriving there. Mo began transforming his body nearly two years ago and now looks the part of an SEC lineman. He's in the 320 range now - from 360 his first year - and is leaner and in better shape. He also possesses the team's highest bench press at 440 pounds. He's quickly becoming a very pleasant surprise.
Senior Andrew Wicker is also having a good spring so far. The foot that troubled him throughout last season is no longer a factor - it basically healed in the offseason. That will help his productivity quite a bit. Look for Wick to leave his mark this spring and make a case for being one of the top five OL.
The Rebs need a center to emerge. So far, Thomas Eckers, who started spring training at OG, has looked the best, but JUCO transfer Corey Actis has also shown promise. Senior James McCoy, who has one more shot to prove he can play on this level, is also under consideration at C and OG.
Who will the top five be? Who will be the top two or three backups? Who will take over the center slot? Those are questions yet to be answered and some may not be in spring.
But with Kehoe at the helm of the OL and a new attitude among the players, OL shouldn't be the "weakness" some fans have already anticipated.
The cupboard is not overstocked. Some of the jars are half full. But it's not empty either.
Tomorrow: We'll look at the tight ends and wide receivers.
Grid observations, Part III
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