Ole Miss Offensive Line Coach Mike Markuson knows he has a major challenge in front of him as the spring training phase of the 2010 season approaches - virtually the same challenge he had last spring.
"Last year it was Michael Oher, Darryl Harris and Maurice Miller we had to replace. This year, it's John Jerry, Reid Neely and probably Daverin Geralds," Markuson noted. "That's just the way it is on this level. You are constantly replacing someone, or so it seems."
Mike anticipates the same results, in the long haul.
"We are going to be pretty young, which will mean there will be some growing pains, but if people are patient, I think we will get similar results," Markuson said. "There were some people down on Bradley (Sowell) the first few games of 2009, but once he gained some real experience, the complaining stopped for the most part.
"We won't be quick to judge because we know where we are starting and we know the journey is long."
Where the Rebels are starting from is some stability at the tackle slots with junior Sowell and sophomore Bobby Massie.
"In reality, those two are still young players with a lot more growing to do, but their experience last year was invaluable and puts them ahead of the curve," Mike explained. "They aren't even close to being what they are going to be, but they have to step up and be leaders now, even though they aren't seniors. That's asking a lot, but I believe they can handle it based on how they responded last year.
"Both of them fought through a learning curve and came out on the other end ready to get even better. I was very proud of them and expect very good spring sessions from both."
Markuson has an idea of how things will play out beyond the two obvious tackles, but he admits it's a vague idea.
"There is so much that can happen between now and the season that it's hard to predict who will emerge," he added. "The biggest thing we have to do is find our best five in spring and then go from there. We won't be as worried about positions as we will skills and development, work ethic, growth, who wants it - all those things."
Based on the info at hand - with the offseason workouts about to start - it appears the top candidates to make a splash this spring will be A.J. Hawkins, who is learning to center; Logan Clair, who redshirted out of junior college to work on his body; Rishaw Johnson, who is supposed to make a spring comeback after a lengthy suspension in the fall; Alex "Tank" Washington, who is hoping this will be his year to make a statement; Josh Tatum, who has impressed Markuson of late; and Emmanuel McCray, the most mature of last year's signees beyond Massie.
If Geralds is not granted a medical hardship fifth year, which is hoped for but not eagerly anticipated, Hawkins is the likely choice to win the center spot. Markuson said he will have to snap the ball "10,000 times" between now and August, but he likes A.J.'s aggressiveness and mental capacity.
Clair was sized up quickly last spring and it was determined he had to do the "bigger, stronger, faster" routine in order to help the team. A redshirt was ordered and Logan made the most of it, getting his body weight to 320 pounds and increasing his strength levels significantly. He now looks like an SEC OL.
Rishaw is reportedly on track and has reportedly put all his off-the-field issues behind him. Being without football has awakened him to its importance in his life. The expectations are high for him to return with a higher commitment and for him to win one of the guard spots in spring, just as he did last spring.
Tank has been off the radar for three years as he has worked feverishly to get his body right. We've been told Washington works as hard as anyone on the team and it's finally starting to pay off. He could be the dark horse of spring to land one of the guard spots.
Tatum had an uneventful freshman season and was in danger of losing his spot on the team due to academic issues and a tough transition period to this level of play, but the light came on for him during the season. He made his grades, he dedicated himself to changing his body and he emerged on the other end during Cotton Bowl practices as a pleasant surprise to Markuson. Josh has a mean streak, Mike said, which certainly appeals to any OL coach.
McCray needs a monster offseason to crack the rotation, but that's expected. His strength levels have increased a lot so far but he's got more work to do to impact the OL. He could be the third tackle or he could move inside if he shows enough improvement. His upside is excellent. It's just a matter of when he puts it all together.
Another redshirt freshman who could make an impression in spring is Mike Brown. He's in the bigger, stronger offseason mode right now, but Markuson also likes his upside, although he seems to be behind McCray at this point in his development.
A couple of young center prospects will get their first dose of spring training as well, Chris Gill and Evan Swindall. While you never really know what time line their path of development will take, it's anticipated they will need more time in that quest.
Markuson's mission will leave him with his hands full this spring, but he's confident he will be able to piece together a competent offensive line.
"Some of our younger guys will have to develop quicker than normal, but they'll have the opportunity to do that in spring," he closed. "We feel pretty good about the candidates we have on campus and the ones we will get this summer to add to the mix."
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