An area of concern for the coaching staff early this spring has been the depth along the offensive line.
Bradley Sowell, considered the heir apparent to the departed Michael Oher at left tackle, is having his will tested early.
"We are pushing Bradley Sowell and he fought through a swollen ankle (Wednesday), which was good, but he's got to get a little tougher and a little stronger," Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt said. "I think he will be fine, but we've got to see it. We wanted to see how he would handle that ankle injury and he did well."
Sowell suffered a demotion Wednesday, with right guard Reid Neely shifting to his tackle spot, and Alex Washington stepping in at guard. A.J. Hawkins also saw reps with the first team, with utility man Brandon Green getting some looks as well.
Considering the Rebels are only four practices in, the coaches already seem to have their hands full.
"(Neely) has length and he's been around the block. If we need him to, he can play tackle, we believe," said Nutt. "We need his versatility. If we played tomorrow, and thank goodness we don't, he'd be our starting left tackle.
"Brandon Green is becoming a good utility guy capable of playing three interior positions. A.J. Hawkins is coming on. Mark-Jean Louis has probably been the surprise so far. He's snapping well, getting the calls and he's tough and strong."
Experimentation is custom with spring drills, as finding a cohesive unit is easier said than done.
This year has proven even more difficult, with the losses of Oher, Maurice Miller and Darryl Harris noticeable so far.
"We just need some depth at that position right now," OL coach Mike Markuson said of moving Neely to left tackle. "It's a concern. Bradley (Sowell) has done some good things but we're going to make sure that we get the best five out there.
"Spring's for experimentation – that's for sure. We always have to be concerned about the next guy if someone were to go down. The guys coming in, we don't know what they're going to be able to do. So we have to take this group and find out what's what."
But it was still somewhat of a surprise to see Sowell moved to the second team so early on.
After garnering valuable experience as a backup tight end last season, the 6-foot-7, 310 pounder appeared more than ready to step in and grab his starting slot atop the Rebel depth chart.
"It's a little bit different being on the first team," Sowell said of his transition to starter. "But so far, it hasn't been that bad."
Markuson had a different assessment, however.
While he has seen some good things from the sophomore, Markuson said he wants Sowell to bring more aggression to his game.
"We need him to be real tough, bottom line," he said. "We're trying to find toughness in these guys. He's supposed to be the next guy, but until we're totally convinced where we're going to go…
"When you think that's your spot, hopefully something's going to come out of you where you'll fight a little bit harder to be the guy. That's something that can't be taught. But we sure can give him enough one-on-ones and see how he responds to it. I'd want that job if it was mine. He's going to figure it out – one way or the other."
While some have wondered whether the move to tight end made the transition back more difficult, Sowell said there isn't a noticeable difference between the positions blocking-wise.
"Most of the steps are the same except for a few plays," the Hernando native said. "It's all technique. I can hit well, but I just need to get my hands inside and stuff like that. It's the little things that can make me more physical. Because I'm so tall, sometimes guys can get under me a little bit."
Sowell said the line will continue to be a work in progress as the newcomers become more acclimated.
"We have a lot of young guys and three veterans who are trying to lead," he said. "Some of the young guys need to step up. We have a bit of a depth problem right now."
For the time being, it appears Neely will remain on the left side, with Sowell waiting in the wings.
"He's a versatile guy," said Markuson of Neely. "It's just a little different out on the edge. But give him some time and he'll be alright. He's had those hamstring problems, but I think he and Coach (Don) Decker worked hard in the offseason, stretching him better, so he's not as tight.
"We can't lose anybody."
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