OL – It's been a grind Everyone saw it coming. It was no shock.
Offensive Line Coach/Co-Offensive Coordinator Mike Markuson knew it and so did his players.
Spring training was going to be a grind, of the mind and the body.
There was no other choice. The Rebels are in the process of replacing three interior starters and, if we are going to objective, the returning starting tackles also had work to do to reach their peaks.
"We accomplished a lot in the spring. When you go against the DL we competed against each day, you are going to get better. For young OL, that's a positive. We are practicing against the kind of people we are going to compete against in this league, so it helps in the long haul," said Markuson. "We got a factual picture of what will happen this fall.
"We are not where we want to be yet, but we have seen signs, especially late in spring, of getting better. We have a decent nucleus going into fall camp."
Early on, the defensive front was punishing the OL, especially the younger guys. As spring wore on, they started standing up more and more to the defense.
"It's pretty typical of most springs, really. The DL is usually going to be ahead of the OL, especially when you are replacing three-fifths of the OL," Mike said. "We had to become more physical and we have. We needed to get a swagger, and I started to see that emerge as well. Again, we still have a lot to do, but progress was our key this spring and I have seen that. I am not displeased."
When Markuson runs down the depth chart, you can easily realize he thinks the candidates he has to work with have enough ability and potential to be very good, but it's the stage of their careers they are in that concerns him.
At left tackle, junior Bradley Sowell has been excellent in spring.
"Brad has been phenomenal. His strength levels are better, he's an athlete and he's playing with a lot of confidence. He wants to be the guy and we are proud of his efforts," Mike noted. "A year in this league will do that."
RS freshman Emmanuel McCray, who can also work some inside, is next.
"Emmanuel has progressed the most of the freshman group. He's responding to coaching and doing what we ask him to do. From the start of spring until now, he's improved a great deal," noted Mike. "He is going to push for a starting spot somewhere and is in our top six or seven guys right now. In the offseason, we want him to get his strength levels up, but I'm very pleased with where he is in his first spring."
At left guard, junior Alex Washington currently holds the post, but Mike has thrown down a challenge to him for the offseason – lose 20 pounds.
"He's done some good things, but he knows he has to lose some mass. His endurance suffers as the reps pile up," Markuson explained. "Tank is very strong and his fundamentals have improved> he does some good things, but we have to get him in better condition. He could play tackle as well."
Behind Washington are redshirt freshmen Mike Brown and Chris Gill.
"Mike has dropped all the baby fat off his body and he's getting stronger. He's building his body back up. He's a very intelligent kid who tries to do things the right way and it's showing in his play," Mike assessed. "He just needs to keep working hard in the weight room. He's got a real chance.
"Chris has struggled a little bit with his assignments and has had a knee issue. He's also around 280 pounds and has to get bigger, but I think this young man can be a player in time. He's got the frame and he's a great kid who works hard. He'll be fine in time."
Junior Zack Brent is also in the mix at either guard.
"Zack is a fantastic program guy who loves his team and his school. He's gotten to play in some games at the end and deserves that," Markuson continued. "He's real smart, he does his job, he does what we ask him to do and he's a pleasure to coach."
At center, sophomore A.J. Hawkins has nosed ahead of true freshman Evan Swindall during spring training.
"A.J. has tremendous talent and great lower body strength. He's a very smart kid who is learning to play the position. He has excellent leverage. He's now maturing and doing a better job as a practice player," Mike noted. "He just needs to learn to compete more on a play-to-play basis because he is a really talented young man.
"Evan is very strong for a young guy. He has a good natural snap motion, which A.J. does too. They are good snappers, including shotgun snaps. Evan is a coach's son who takes football seriously. He's still got to mature into this level, but he's had a pretty good spring against that first team defense. I think he has a very good future."
Gill has played a little at center as well and Chase Hughes, a February signee and early high school grad, is on campus, but he's had to sit out due to offseason shoulder surgery.
At right guard, junior Rishaw Johnson has returned to the mix and is doing very well, according to his mentor.
"Rishaw is in that category with Brad. Tremendous athlete and great lower body strength. When he locks on to you, he can really sink his hips and get some push. Rishaw is a very explosive guy. His issue is doing it every snap. When he gets that into his head, he can be a dominant player for us," Mike stated emphatically. "He's also grown up a lot since being suspended last year for some games. For us to be as good up front as we want to be, he's got to be a great player and he's capable of that."
Sophomore Josh Tatum is behind Johnson. Toward the end of spring, Tatum helped himself in Markuson's eyes.
"Josh is a powerful, powerful guy who really came on late in spring when an injured ankle healed. I want him to trim down a little. If he will, his lateral movement will improve and he can be a force. He's really an explosive guy who likes contact," Mike evaluated. "He's a tough, gritty guy and he's doing a lot better job in school as well as on the field. He has a real chance to help us."
At right tackle, sophomore Bobby Massie has also impressed Mike in spring training, with a caveat.
"Bobby lost a little too much weight. He's right around 300 now and we want him heavier than that," said Mike. "He's an excellent athlete. Last year, we were able to throw him in the fire because he had John Jerry flanking him to help support him while he learned. Now his role is different. He realizes he's got to be the guy. He's gotten better physically and is a great practice player. He works really hard and wants to be a great player. He has all the ability in the world, but he knows he needs to get stronger and put back on some good weight. "
Junior Logan Clair is backing up Massie.
"Logan has to keep working to improve. His progress has not been as fast as I anticipated after his redshirt year," Mike stated. "He will get there, we just have to keep working with him and pushing him."
A player who can't play in 2010 is transfer walk-on Matt Hall, who came to Ole Miss from Arkansas at mid-semester.
"Matt is a big, tall, long, strong body who can really lean on a defender. He's going to be a really good player for us. I just want him to live in the weight room during next year while he has to sit out and he will come out on the other end of that very special with two years left to play," Mike closed.
Analysis: There's only one question. How quickly can these players, especially the younger ones, get ready for the SEC? The potential and ability is there and you could see the development and progress day-by-day in spring training, but will it be enough for the 2010 season? That answer is shaping up to be perhaps the most important one about the whole Rebel team.