Overview – There were many keys to Ole Miss' fateful Cotton Bowl run, but the much improved play of the offensive line may be the greatest.
The Rebel front had several unknowns heading into 2008, with depth and personnel moves heading the list. Ole Miss returned most of its starters along the line, but hadn't developed much game time chemistry outside of spring football.
While All-SEC first teamer Michael Oher was firmly entrenched as the team's left tackle, the front experienced a complete makeover upon head coach Houston Nutt's arrival.
Daverin Geralds replaced the departed Corey Actis at center, after experimenting with defense in years prior. Maurice Miller and John Jerry switched positions, with Miller moving inside from tackle to guard and vice versa. Journeyman Darryl Harris and now-senior Reid Neely fought a fierce battle for the LG slot, with Harris ultimately winning due to various reasons.
But as the season progressed, the group began to come together. They paved the way for the second-best running attack in the SEC, as Ole Miss averaged 186.5 yards per game on the ground. The team was also third in total offense (407.6 ypg) and was second in scoring offense at 32.1 points per game.
Better yet, the line allowed only 20 sacks on the year, ranking fourth in the league in that category. With Jevan Snead allowed to stay upright, the passing game thrived, ranking fourth in pass offense at 221.2 ypg.
Shifting to 2009, the front will focus on yet another alteration this spring, as they face the task of replacing Oher, Miller and Harris in the five-man rotation.
Sophomore Bradley Sowell is the heir apparent at left tackle, having gained valuable experience last season as the team's blocking tight end. He performed well in the role, better grasping fundamentals in blocking technique and the change in game speed from the high school level.
But left tackle is a totally different animal.
Sowell trimmed down considerably for the TE tour of duty, playing most of the year under 300 pounds. He's worked hard in the offseason to get his weight back up, as his development is easily the most important focal point for OL coach Mike Markuson.
Fellow sophomore Rishaw Johnson joins Sowell on the left side, as Neely will be moved to the RG in spring drills. Johnson made a name for himself during Cotton Bowl practices, displaying unparalleled athleticism beneficial from the pulling guard spot.
At 6-foot-4, 295 pounds, he carries a good frame. He's quick to contact and also possesses improved footwork. But Johnson's troubles have stemmed from inconsistency, as the Hammond, La. native has flashed moments of dominance at different points in his career. However, he hasn't put it all together, with the spring a perfect time to finally realize his immense potential.
Having started since his freshman season, Jerry looks to be the anchor of this year's group. The 6-foot-6, 350 pound mauler opted to skip early declaration for the NFL Draft in an attempt to hone his skills as a senior.
While run blocking has proven to be his strong suit, the All-SEC second teamer will have to continue to make progress in passing situations. No one can doubt his ability, but hand placement and proper kick-blocking are essential against speedy pass rushers in the SEC.
He's close, but Baby J made the right decision to stay in Oxford another year. He's been a solid leader for the Rebels over his career, which should bode well for a line experiencing plenty of attrition this spring.
It could be argued that no player outside of Snead proved more valuable to the Rebels' achievements last season than Geralds, who made a seamless transition to his full-time gig as starting center as a junior. The 6-foot-2, 312 pounder was responsible for line calls during games but proved to be a quick study, as there were few blown assignments or botched snaps.
While steady quarterback play is critical in any team's success, center is a close second. With Geralds bursting on to the scene in 2008 and playing well, the O-line is in good hands with March 27th approaching.
Returning Starters: RT John Jerry, C Daverin Geralds, RG Reid Neely
Other Key Returnees: LT Bradley Sowell, LG Rishaw Johnson, OG Alex Washington
Key Signees: OT Bobby Massie, OT Emmanuel McCray, OT Michael Brown, C Evan Swindoll, OT Logan Clair, OL Mike Thomas
Key Losses: LT Michael Oher, LG Darryl Harris, RG Maurice Miller
Quotable – Sophomore Bradley Sowell
On now being recognized as the starter at LT:
"It's kind of odd right now. When we line up in offseason drills and (Strength & Conditioning) Coach (Don) Decker says 'first group,' I'm still looking around for Michael. I'm having to pinch myself a little as (LG) Rishaw (Johnson) and I adapt to being with that first group."
On what the transition has been like:
"I'm going through a reality check now. It's just me now. I know I've done everything I need to do to get ready, but it's an entirely different role that I have to adjust to. I have to be like one of the leaders now."
On how his experience at TE last season has helped his development:
"You can only do so much in practice, but you really don't know what it's like in an SEC game until you actually play in one extensively. It's the real deal in games, a whole different speed and intensity level. The first game I was a little nervous, but as the games clicked by, I was fine. I think getting that playing time is going to help me a lot with my new challenge. I am glad I got to play some before the LT job was mine."
On putting on weight in the offseason:
"I got down to 295 during the regular season, but I got back to about 305 at the Cotton Bowl. I'm looking to be 310 or 315 when the season rolls around. That would be a good weight for me with my frame."
On getting stronger and faster:
"I'm quicker than I have ever been right now, but I'm trying to get stronger in my upper body. My lower body is strong, but I want to get stronger up top. My squat is high, but I need to improve my bench press. I think my power clean is going to be near 300 pounds, which is good. Guys with long arms like I have sometimes struggle with the bench, but I've got to keep working hard and improve it for my upper body strength."
On solidifying his spot in the spring:
"I know I have to prove myself in spring. Some people look at me as a question mark on the OL, but I don't look at it like that. I just want to prove myself as the number one LT."
On the homework he's undergone to prepare for the job:
"I just have to study film and keep working. I have studied Michael for two years now, so I have no excuses. Either I do it or I don't. I'm not overwhelmed, but I understand the responsibility I have."
On working with Rishaw Johnson on the left side of the line:
"(OL) Coach (Mike) Markuson will just have to look one way and yell since they moved Rishaw to the left side instead of having to look both ways and yell. He'll have both his newcomers to the first group on the same side. Rishaw and I are the young side of the line, but we like that. Reid (Neely) and John (Jerry) will be the power side and we'll be the ones holding up the backside."
On lessons learned from four-year starter Michael Oher:
"He came to work every day. He worked hard every day. He never complained and was humble. Mike helped me a lot in learning how to play the position and just how to conduct yourself overall and I appreciate it. My goal for spring is to do like Mike - stay with it every play. Don't get down, don't get lazy."
On the team's expectations for next season:
"We're not going to say much about next year. We know what we have and how hard we are working. Just put it this way – we are expecting big things. I'll leave it at that."
Final Analysis – While depth will again have to be built in spring and through the fall, the offensive line returns a bulk of returners from last season.
With Jerry, Geralds and Neely, Nutt and staff have a strong core to build upon, as each has starting experience over their respective careers.
Jerry is the biggest name, returning for what hopes to be a stellar senior season. He was strong in 2008, as Nutt often referred to Jerry as the best of the bunch at various points over the year. He possesses ideal size for tackle and is also a strong leader. Jerry is unmatched in run blocking, with a punishing style triggered by unrelenting force upon initial contact.
The focal point this spring will be his pass blocking, as Jerry was inconsistent in that area last season. Polishing his technique will be the first step, but he's not far off in terms of mastering his craft. Look for Baby J to make a sizeable leap to dominance next season.
No cog is of greater importance than Sowell, as replacing Oher is the obvious key in the line's success in the fall. He has all the tools and is well driven, but no position carries a heavier burden than left tackle. As protector to Snead's blind side, Sowell will be left on an island against the best pass rushers the SEC has to offer – a pretty hefty task considering he's only a sophomore.
Solidifying the spot in the spring is important, as Bobby Massie is sure to fit a front role in some capacity next season. Whether it's as starter or utility man is dependent on Sowell.
Sowell is joined on the left side by fellow youngster Rishaw Johnson, who blossomed during bowl preparations. There have been high expectations for Johnson since entering college as a decorated high schooler, but he will now get his shot to turn an undeniable raw talent into a capable SEC lineman.
Nutt and Markuson have their hands full depth wise once again this spring, but the two proved last season they'll find capable bodies when needed.
The tallest task is molding the left side, as two underclassmen will be asked to fill the shoes of Oher and Harris. But one thing's for sure: with Markuson at the reigns, the line will always perform at their highest possible level.
Spring Preview: Offensive Line
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