Looking ahead to bowl practice and the spring.
Second in a series …
Hugh Freeze began this football season talking about increased depth across the board that he felt would help the Rebels compete.
That depth showed up in most places, but one position that never seemed to excel was the offensive line.
Before we go further let me say this group saved its best for last. It helped the Rebels have a run game in the Egg Bowl, and it protected its ailing quarterback, Bo Wallace.
As the dust settles on the regular season it’s still a group that ranks No. 12 in the SEC in both sacks allowed and tackles for loss allowed, and that’s with a first-team All-SEC choice, Laremy Tunsil, at left tackle.
Tunsil played hurt or didn’t play the last month of the season. He missed most of the second halves at LSU and Arkansas and was held out completely against Auburn and Presbyterian.
This line dealt with other injuries too in center Ben Still and guard Aaron Morris.
Dominated against a more physical Arkansas defensive front Freeze openly called on the need to “get those guys some help” by way of recruiting.
You can look at the commitment list and see that Freeze has made this position a priority. Right now that list includes a Rivals five star tackle in Drew Richmond, a four star guard in Javon Patterson, and a three star tackle in Alex Givens who at 276 pounds has the potential to really grow into a 6-foot-6 frame.
This isn’t the first class in which Freeze has focused on the line.
Rod Taylor, a four star signee this year, got plenty of playing time as a freshman. Jordan Sims, a three star guard in this year’s class, was redshirted. So was Sean Rawlings, a center, lesser known in the recruiting coverage. Freeze recently commented on Rawlings and how impressed he was with the physical growth he’s seeing.
Davion Johnson and Daronte Bouldin are both redshirt freshmen this year. Both are listed on the two-deep, but they’ve played sparingly.
There’s also been a big transfer pick-up in former UCLA tackle Christian Morris. He was a great off-season pick-up a year ago when the Rebels lost a key member of the 2013 signing class in Austin Golson. Golson was pegged as the starter at right tackle coming out of spring but announced suddenly he would transfer to Auburn.
It hurt to lose a guy who was rated the No. 8 offensive tackle coming out of high school, but he was in essence replaced with Morris, the No. 10 player at the position. Rivals rated Golson the No. 118 player overall, Morris the No. 128 player.
Morris eventually received an NCAA waiver to compete this season but played very little. In addition to the waiver uncertainty in the off-season he sustained an Achilles injury.
He did not make an impact this season as a redshirt freshman, but he’s got intriguing potential moving forward.
There’s more intrigue with this group. I had a conversation with Justin Bell a few weeks ago. It was his understanding, and he seemed quite adamant, that he would receive extensive work at center in the spring. Still won the center job in August and held it throughout the year, but he didn’t win it early. There was a lot of back-and-forth between he and Robert Conyers. Freeze and OL coach Matt Luke also really liked Conyers as their top tackle reserve, and Still’s absence was felt at LSU when Conyers was already playing center when Tunsil had to leave the game.
Even though there are highly rated players coming into the program it’s a little unusual to up and move a three-year starter. That’s what Bell will be at guard next season.
Giving Bell a look at center means there’s still a question there, or that Luke is really high on the young guards in the program plus the coming of Patterson.
There will be an uncommon degree of competition next spring for a unit that will return five starters.
The same five starters may win out, but you may see more substitution along the line than you’ve seen before under Freeze.
Slowly he is accumulating enough talented bodies to allow for that.