Those who excel at the all-important job of protecting the backside rush of a given quarterback are hardly given mention. However, once a mistake is made, the world notices.
In the inaugural season for sophomore Bradley Sowell as the blindside protector of Jevan Snead, 2009 has been filled with ups-and-downs. While he's graded out as one of No. 20 Ole Miss' top linemen this season, there were previous struggles against the league's premier pass rushers.
Against South Carolina, Sowell was no match for defensive end Eric Norwood, who totaled 10 tackles and two sacks in a 16-10 USC win. On the Plains, it was Antonio Coleman who bested the Hernando native with two sacks himself and five tackles as Auburn won 33-20.
And with each loss came a wealth of criticism for the 6-foot-7, 305 pounder.
"There were times I worried about his confidence, especially after South Carolina," offensive line coach Mike Markuson said. "He was getting dogged pretty good."
For weeks, Sowell was used as the proverbial whipping boy for a Rebel squad that had reached as high as No. 4 in the national polls but saw its bubble burst quickly.
Along with a sub-par performance in Columbia, some fans and media put his attitude into question after Sowell made a comment about being relieved that Ole Miss would no longer be ranked highly.
"I knew it was going to be like that," Sowell said of the outside criticism. "It's tough, but at the same time, the only people who know what's going on are the people inside of here. But I'm a pretty strong person. I'm not the kind of person who is going to lay down and let it get to me. I just kept working hard. I wasn't going to let it get me down. I kept trying my hardest."
Snead could relate.
Through six games, the junior quarterback was completing fewer than 50 percent of his passes. While he had totaled 12 touchdowns at that point, Snead was also battling turnovers with nine interceptions thrown.
Suffice to say, with a season tilting toward the side of disappointment, the pair was facing an inordinate amount of pressure.
"You can't really listen to what other people have to say," said Snead. "There's going to be times where they're hyping you up and other times where they're dragging you down. You can't put too much into it. You have to focus on doing what you can to improve and help your team. For myself and Bradley, that's what we did."
"Me and Jevan have talked about it before," Sowell added. "We knew every time we lost, it was going to be our fault. You just can't let it get you down. You have to be strong. You have to understand that this is the SEC. Everybody is going to be on your back. You're going to get criticized. Deal with it. When you do well, you're going to get praised."
But with Ole Miss now winners in five of its last six games and amidst a three-game win streak, Sowell and Snead are riding high.
Thanks to noticeable improvement by both, a once dormant offense is finally proving formidable, as the Rebels are averaging 465.2 total yards in their last six games. The Rebels have reached 500 yards of total offense three times this season, while their 553 in a 30-17 victory over Arkansas were the most by an Ole Miss offense since 2004.
Even more, however, Sowell has come into his own in tackling the unenviable task of replacing stalwart Michael Oher.
"It's helped that our offense has gotten better," said Markuson of Sowell's improvement. "As the season's gone on, the offense has gotten better and he's gotten better. Once you decide to go with a guy, he's your guy and you give him time. Sometimes it doesn't turn out how you want it to, but you have to be patient and ride it out. Brad's done a great job. He hasn't gotten down on himself. He's stayed positive and has gotten tremendously better."
"He's really worked hard and I'm proud of that," offensive coordinator Kent Austin said. "Coach Markuson has really brought him along and coached him very well. And he cares. That's one of the biggest parts of the battle. You have to care enough to get better and Bradley does."
In arguably his best game of a still young career against LSU, Sowell held Rahim Alem, a 2008 First-Team All-SEC selection, to a mere one tackle in a thrilling 25-23 Ole Miss win.
The Rebels failed to surrender a sack in the game, while Sowell helped pave the way for yet another 100-yard rushing performance for senior running back Dexter McCluster.
"I thought about it all week," Sowell said of the matchup with Alem. "I knew he was going to be coming all year and the kind of player he was. The coaches challenged me and told me I was going to have to be at my best and grade out 100 percent in the passing game. I was a lot more confident. I knew what he was going to do. I made it a point not to lose to him. It was probably my best game."
Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt certainly took notice.
"He's put it all together," he said. "I'm not saying he's not up there just yet. But if you go back and look at the first game, second game, South Carolina and now fast forward, he's a different tackle. I'm really proud of him."
Though his contributions will rarely be seen in a postgame stat line, Sowell's transformation over the course of his sophomore season has played a major role in the Rebels' meaningful final run toward a major bowl bid.
And while he's endured the harshest of lows, Sowell holds no regrets.
"It's just the experience. I feel like the more I lost battles, the better I got," he said. "You see what you did wrong and have time to fix it. Coach Markuson is so good to work with. He's taught me so much stuff that's helped me out. The coaches really challenged me and I didn't want to lay down or anything. I've just tried my hardest each game and given it my all, and I've been really successful these last few games."
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