The Rebels begin spring football practice Sunday.
Hugh Freeze said from the beginning that his offensive line would be the last group to “catch up” to his up-tempo style of offense.
That proved to be true in his debut season.
There were times last spring and in August that the line of clearly behind its defensive teammates. A corner was turned a couple of weeks into camp, and the offensive line began to compete better in practice.
Eventually the group became competitive in games but still had problems.
It helped the Rebels rush for 173.85 yards a game, 49th in the nation and fifth in the SEC.
But the line also allowed 2.62 sacks a game, 97th in American, 11th in the SEC.
When you consider how many times Bo Wallace passed under duress or that Ole Miss quarterbacks ran out of the pocket that stat is more humbling.
Not all sacks attributed to the offensive line – sometimes the quarterback needs to get rid of the ball quicker – but most are.
Obviously the Rebels will try to improve that number this year and do so with four starters returning up front in tackles Emmanuel McCray and Pierce Burton, left guard Aaron Morris and center Evan Swindall.
Morris is coming off shoulder surgery and will miss spring.
That will free up some snaps up front, most likely to senior Corey Gaines and sophomore Justin Bell. Both are candidates to get into a playing rotation as OL coach Matt Luke tries to expand the group of reserves that gets on the field. Bell might have played more last year had he not gotten hurt. Gaines has made strides, and Luke likes his physicality. That’s an attribute that was sometimes missing in 2012. While the Rebels became efficient at holding blocks long enough for Jeff Scott or Randall Mackey to break a play to the outside, this was not a group that could really line up and create space in short-yardage situations. The Texas A&M and Vanderbilt games come to mind.
The primary reserve last year was Patrick Junen. Look for him to jump into the starter’s spot at right guard, the position vacated by A.J. Hawkins.
In August the offensive line will add Laremy Tunsil, a five-star recruit and the No. 1 offensive tackle prospect.
The OL is the hardest group for a newcomer to break in and play early, but it appears that Tunsil has the tools to do that, which could give Luke the option of moving McCray or Burton inside.