Fall Focus: Offensive Line

In the weeks leading up to fall practices, The Ole Miss Spirit will be filing frequent reports previewing each position area of the 2010 Ole Miss football team. Thursday's edition covers the Rebel offensive line. Read about it inside.

Overview – Quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, the much-talked about Ole Miss walk-on who led Oregon to the Rose Bowl last season, is expected in Oxford Thursday.

He'll arrive under a national microscope, considering his decision to join the Ole Miss football program for all of four months has been dissected ad nauseum throughout the uncharacteristically busy news month of July.

What type of impact he'll make on a team picked to finish last in the SEC West by league media is yet to be seen. All can agree, however, that he and starter Nathan Stanley will need some help from the one position Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt says "keeps me up at night."

Bradley Sowell and Bobby Massie, two bookend offensive tackles, lead an offensive line facing massive overhaul and depth chart shuffling.

Bradley Sowell>

Sowell, who was one of three team representatives at SEC Media Days two weeks ago, has emerged as a team leader and veteran presence for a retooled offense. He came on strong in the latter stages of 2009, actually grading out best of all linemen in numerous late-season games, after numerous growing pains early.

Most notably, Sowell struggled mightily on a nationally televised stage in Columbia, as the Rebels fell, 16-10.

"I got beat a few times at the beginning of the year, but I grew up," Sowell said. "I wasn't going to let it happen. I worked my hardest, never gave up and my coaches believed in me."

Sowell says he's learned from his mistakes and become a better player and person. Not only was his play criticized, but his quotes, as well. Ole Miss entered the game ranked No. 4 overall. Following the loss, Sowell made headlines by voicing his relief of the high ranking being gone.

"It's a really nice feeling," he said a year later. "You go from somebody that everyone's really down about to a guy who knows what I'm about to do and what the season's going to be like."

Massie was brought along slowly in his true freshman season. After seeing time strictly as a reserve in the first eight games, the former five-star recruit out of Hargrave Military Academy started the final five at right tackle.

His insertion into the starting lineup alongside long-tenured veteran John Jerry paid dividends, as he helped a sputtering Ole Miss offense rank second in the conference and 14th in the nation in fewest sacks allowed (17), including no sacks allowed in a thrilling, 25-23 win over LSU Nov. 21.

Bobby Massie>

"I can't believe how good he was as a freshman," Sowell said. "He's like a grown man already. He's up to 315, is stronger than ever, and he can run all day. He should seriously be in a fat-man relay or something, because he can run all day. He's in unreal condition. He's in great shape and never complains. He's going to be a great ball-player."

Rishaw Johnson, who returned from suspension in the spring, provides more experience and a wealth of talent at right guard.

A much-maligned talent, Johnson displayed a drastic change of attitude in April, parlaying into a very consistent, if sometimes dominant, return. Johnson is a needed commodity along the line, considering he's filling the shoes of Jerry – a four-year starter selected by the Miami Dolphins in the third round of the 2010 NFL Draft.

The glaring problem areas, it seems, are at center and right guard, where A.J. Hawkins and Alex Washington are currently slotted with the first team, respectively. Hawkins, a versatile center/guard, saw action in 10 games and earned his first letter in 2009. Washington, meanwhile, appeared in all games with one start against Northern Arizona.

Their maturation is necessity. Behind them are limited numbers. Among those who could see time at a number of offensive line positions are underclassmen Evan Swindall, Josh Tatum, Emmanuel McCray, Chris Gill and Michael Brown, as well as juniors Logan Clair and Zack Brent.

"We have to gel and we have to continue on that path through August and into the season," Sowell said. "It's tough at the beginning, but we have a great offensive line coach (Mike Markuson) and we're working hard to get where we need to be. I feel good about where we're headed."

Returning Starters: OT Bradley Sowell, OT Bobby Massie

Other Key Returnees: OG Rishaw Johnson, C/G A.J. Hawkins, OG Alex Washington

Key Signees: OT Terrence Hackney, OL Chase Hughes, OG Jared Duke

Key Losses: OG John Jerry, OG Reid Neely, C Daverin Geralds


Junior Bradley Sowell

On his individual growth:

"I'm one of the older guys now. My role has changed. I have to step up and be a leader now. I know where these young guys need to be - I've been through it. I took my lessons. I know where we have to be in mental toughness."

On the line's improvement in the spring:

"I have seen us grow up in spring and in the offseason. We are tougher. Everyone is making all our runs and working hard in the offseason. We're getting stronger. For myself, I got beaten some last year. I now have experience, know what I am going against and know how to prepare. I will never let that happen again."

More on what he learned last season:

"A big thing is now I know how to prepare my body for what's about to hit me. It's a tough league. Some of our young guys don't realize it, but you really have to prepare your body. I know what's coming this year. I know what I have to face."

On national expectations:

"I really don't pay attention, because I just want to win the West. I want Ole Miss to go to Atlanta. It hasn't happened yet. Ole Miss is the only school not to go to Atlanta. Whatever expectations people want to put on us, that's on them. For us, we want to win the West. That's why we have a sign in our locker room that says Atlanta. That's where we want to go."

Head coach Houston Nutt

On junior Bradley Sowell:

"Bradley is a completely different person than when I first met him. He's mature. He's strong, he's tough and he's developed into a leader. He took some lumps early last year, but he ended the season really on a high note and has carried that on through spring and into the offseason. Amazing development."

On the offensive line's improvement in the spring:

"The one thing that I saw was the attitude of, 'they want to.' They had good listening skills. They want to compete. They want to get better. Bradley Sowell really improved. I thought Bobby Massie came on. Those are two tackles on the edges that give us a chance because they played."

Final Analysis: – It's an expression often used, but always true: Offense starts up front.

Ole Miss has been spoiled with strong offensive line play over the last few years. From Michael Oher to John Jerry, Ole Miss has had an abundance of talent; talent made better by widely-respected offensive line coach Mike Markuson.

This year, and while a solid foundation, tackles Sowell and Massie are the only certainties - the rest a crapshoot, if you will.

Rishaw Johnson>

Markuson will have one of his toughest assignments, as replacing three starters is only made worse by an alarming lack of depth. More disturbing, Ole Miss was only able to sign three offensive linemen in its incoming recruiting class, though the addition of Hackney could provide insurance at either tackle or guard.

Johnson, once described by Oher as an NFL lineman in the making, could be in store for a breakout junior season. He's arguably the most talented lineman Ole Miss has to offer. And with an offensive line so extremely young, his experience in the SEC as a 6-foot-4, 305-pound veteran can't be overstated. Not only is he a bulldozer, but Johnson is sound in his technique.

He should have had a full year of starting experience under his belt by now, but a number of disciplinary issues sidetracked his development. If he continues to walk the straight and narrow, as seen in the spring, he'll go a long way in tightening up a leaky unit. Nutt and staff have often raved of his potential. Now seems the opportune time to live up to it.

Hawkins and Washington are the true unknowns. Both have struggled with weight issues, but have come along nicely under the demands of a top-notch strength and conditioning program. Whether as starters or not, they'll be called upon to play. They have to.

Because if they don't, and assuming the offensive line gets caught in a numbers game, Nutt will surely encounter many more sleepless nights.

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