Answering the Call

Over the course of a heavy-hitting practice week, Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt and staff have issued a challenge to an underperforming offensive line in need of some added physicality.

"We've been challenged and we've just got to be physical," senior right tackle John Jerry said. "But you've got to be physical in every game on the offensive line. That's what sets the tone for the whole team. It's a mindset. When you go into a game, you have to know you're going to be physical. We've got that mindset now."

Five games into the 2009 season, the offensive line has battled mightily with inconsistency, struggling in pass protection and failing to steadily open running lanes for a ground attack ranked eighth in the conference (157.6).

Following the team's 22-3 loss to No. 2 Alabama Saturday, Nutt made note of his offense being "whipped up front" and a need to "become much more physical," as five of the Rebels' final seven games come against SEC foes.

However, with a renewed focus on smash-mouth football this week, it appears the bruising maulers in the trenches have responded to their coach's demands.

"We challenged them this week and they've responded," Nutt said. "They've done a good job of doing what we have asked them to do and are getting some more intensity in going against our number one defense. It's been good."

Against the Crimson Tide, an offense yet to field any form of rhythm on the year held true. For the second time in three conference games, the Rebels set the mark for fewest total yards since 2007 with only three points and 212 yards of total offense.

While the final score wasn't indicative of a game dominated by Alabama, the outcome was never in doubt. Ole Miss totaled 12 first downs in the contest, only one in the first half, and was forced to punt six times.

"The main thing is there were times when we'd have a good play, but then we'd go backwards," offensive line coach Mike Markuson said. "You have to stay ahead of the chains. It's hard on a play call and it's hard on the kids when you have a successful play call and you go back. Sure, there were times they physically whipped us. A great defense is going to do that. They're going to throw you and that happened a few times. But a couple of times, we did some good things.

"I think it was just a matter of the offense having no sync at all and our inability to string together some first downs to get us going. You hate to say it, but when you look back on at the film, there were seven or eight plays that if we make, it's a different ballgame. The difference between winning and losing at this level is a few plays. It's all about our guys executing and staying in the game. Those things weren't happening. You do that by moving the chains, being physical and cutting down on mistakes. That's what we've emphasized with them (this week). We're not that far away. We've just got to put a full 60 minutes together."

The response has been practices built around simplification and a return to the basics. Eliminating turnovers and minimizing mistakes are of top priority, with the offensive line a focal point as a homecoming matchup with UAB looms just days away.

"We've really put an emphasis on that this week," offensive coordinator Kent Austin said. "Mike (Markuson) has really pushed them hard and Houston (Nutt) has challenged them. I think our guys are responding well."

"We've had two really good days of practice," Markuson added. "We're doing a few different things with formations, but are basically running our same stuff. We're staying after it."

Nutt announced Monday that Saturday's matchup with the Blazers will be the second game this season sophomore guard Rishaw Johnson sits out due to disciplinary measures.

Currently running in his place on the first team is senior Brandon Green, who holds a previous start in the Rebels' 45-14 season-opening win at Memphis. However, Markuson said he'd like to see snaps spread around to such underclassmen as redshirt freshman A.J. Hawkins.

"I'd like to see both Brandon Green and A.J. Hawkins in there," he said. "We've also entertained the idea of Bobby Massie playing inside down the road. He can't this week because he's been at home with a passing in his family. But we've been working with some different combinations that we feel we can use. I've been happy with them this week. They've worked hard. We'll see what happens."

Though details surrounding the suspension of Johnson are being kept in-house, Markuson said progress on and off the field has been made in the Hammond, La. native.

"He's progressed to a certain degree and let's leave it at that," said Markuson. "There are some certain things he's got to get ironed out to be the kind of player and student-athlete we need him to be at Ole Miss. We're going to make sure he does it. If a guy doesn't conform as we expect, then we go about our business. So we've just got to see."

Amidst the offensive line's search for added aggression has been the gradual maturation of Massie, who arrived on campus with a wealth of expectations.

The former five-star Hargrave product has seen minimal action thus far on the young season, but the prospects of increased playing time could come in the future, according to Markuson.

"He does some awfully good things out there. But like any athlete that's a freshman, you have to keep it pretty simple for him. And no disrespect to him, but there's just some things he can't handle yet," Markuson said. "He can handle certain protections, but could he handle a third-and-8 against Eric Norwood in South Carolina? Probably not.

"There are certain things he could do if he were in the game that we've seen him get better at, and there are things he has to get better at. If he keeps working, there's a lot of football left and we could need him in a different capacity. We're still working to get the best group on the field that we can. For our future, he's a right tackle."

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