Let's Get Physical

After a game physically dominated by No. 2 Alabama Saturday, the Ole Miss offensive line has taken to practice with an added focus on significant improvement. Read about it inside.

Offensive line play isn't for the faint of heart.

For an offense, the front is the proverbial engine, triggering the scoring machine with brutal physicality against the toughest opposition in the form of massive defensive linemen and athletic linebackers.

The job requirements are demanding and often daunting. Each and every Saturday, these bruising maulers do the dirtiest of work. And if cohesion isn't picture perfect, an offense stalls cool in its tracks.

Sound familiar?

Through the better part of five games, Ole Miss has seen its offense sputter, with the unit ranking eighth in the conference in total yards per game (338.2). But even more disconcerting, in two conference games behind an underperforming line, the Rebels have logged only 13 points and set the mark twice for fewest total yards since 2007 in both contests.

Perhaps magnified in a 22-3 loss to Alabama Saturday, Ole Miss notched a mere 212 yards offensively, while rushing only 23 times for 72 yards. To put it simply, against a physically imposing Crimson Tide front seven, an offensive line proven inconsistent so far was pushed around.

"Two things jump out at you if you watch the film (from Alabama). One, there were a couple of physical mismatches. Secondly, there were also missed assignments," head coach Houston Nutt said. "This guy one play, another guy another play. Those add up against a great defense. You can't do that. Everybody has to do their job."

Entering the season, Nutt and staff faced the difficult challenge of replacing three starters along the offensive line, including the significant void left by stalwart left tackle Michael Oher.

While returning right tackle John Jerry, center Daverin Geralds and experienced backup Reid Neely, the team would rely upon two newcomers lacking experience in Bradley Sowell and Rishaw Johnson.

In a 2-0 start to open the season, results were somewhat promising. Ole Miss tallied 97 points combined in both games and over 800 yards of total offense. However, then came a trip to Columbia and a dreadful performance against a stingy Gamecock defense. A mere 248 yards were gained, while the offensive line surrendered four sacks.

Since the nightmarish loss to South Carolina, the Rebels have been fighting an uphill battle to find an identity. The rub against Ole Miss is its inability to get physical when the need arises, with the offensive line the main culprit of criticism.

"We're very capable. It's just a matter of everybody doing their part at the same time," Geralds said. "Right now, it's a lot of four people doing their job and one person not doing it. Or we have nine guys doing it right and a few who aren't doing it right. It's just a matter of everybody doing their job for the offense to be successful. We feel like we can get the job done.

"I feel like we're physical. Obviously we feel like we're not being as physical as we're capable of being. As a group, we can be better. Everybody has to do their job and be accountable. We have to hold each other accountable."

Following the team's loss to Alabama, Nutt made note of his offense being "whipped up front" and a need to "become much more physical."

As the team prepares for a homecoming matchup with UAB Saturday, it appears the unit has taken to its coach's demands, as Neely said an impetus has been placed on improving in all areas offensively.

"When you hear that, we need to step up and give coach what he wants out of us," he said. "It's not one necessary thing we're not doing well. What the problem is is there are spurts where the offense is clicking as a whole and sometimes where it's not clicking. It's not as simple as pass or run. We have to come together as a unit for four quarters."

However, the problems for Ole Miss don't squarely rest on the shoulders of the offensive line, according to Neely.

"It's the entire offense. It's just as much the offensive line as it is anybody," said Neely. "That's something we really have to work on. We have to put a full game together. You have to have 11 guys doing it right on offense for it to work."

With the Rebels offering one of the SEC's better defenses, the need for a high-powered scoring attack doesn't appear a necessity.

Rather, as Ole Miss faces a crucial stretch of conference contests with Arkansas and Auburn in the coming weeks, a simple need for consistent production may only be required for a season at its crossroads.

But it starts up front.

"We've had the experience and know what it's like to lose," Geralds said. "For the older guys like me, we try to help steer the guys in the right direction. We tell them not to think negatively, because we've been down that road. We've been in a losing program and had a losing mentality. It's a challenge to keep the younger guys' morale up when you're losing. We tell them to keep focused. We're not going in the wrong direction. There's still hope and we can accomplish the goals we set for ourselves. We just have to stay motivated.

"We've done a good job of not pointing fingers or blaming each other. That's some of the signs of having a losing mentality. That's what Coach Nutt refers to when he talks about locker room lawyers. Those are the guys who go into a corner and talk about what we should've done. We haven't had any of that. We've stayed positive."


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