By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Eric Norwood might have been the best thing to ever happen to Bradley Sowell’s Ole Miss football career.
South Carolina’s star pass rusher, the Gamecocks’ senior career sacks leader and one of the top defensive players in the SEC, took Sowell to the woodshed in his first SEC start at left offensive tackle.
Sowell saw it not as a whipping but as a classroom experience with Norwood, who had 10 tackles and two sacks in a 16-10 South Carolina win, as the department chair.
“I’m the kind of guy that learns from that. When you lose you get a lot better,” Sowell said. “The more you lose, the more you learn.”
There was much more losing than learning early on this season for Sowell, a third-year sophomore. He gained a taste of playing in the SEC last season when coaches used him as a blocking tight end in specialty situations. He even caught a touchdown pass this time a year ago against Mississippi State.
What Sowell never got a taste of in 2008 was Eric Norwood, and players of his caliber, coming off the edge. Sowell was the backup at left tackle, which meant he didn’t get much playing time behind All-American Michael Oher.
He was the leading candidate to replace Oher this season, but many other learning experiences had to take place before Sowell hit a groove. Now he’s coming off what he calls his best performance of the year. He graded 100 percent in the pass game last week in the Rebels’ 25-23 win over No. 10 LSU. That meant he won every time against Rahim Alem, another SEC impact pass rusher.
“The coaches challenged me the night before saying, ‘You’re the guy we have to put on him. Get the job done.'”
“It just builds his confidence,” Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said, “a legitimate guy like that that he’s going against every snap … It just makes him better.”
Sowell’s early class time as Oher’s successor didn’t go well. He had his hand spanked in the spring when he was demoted from the first team.
When freshman Bobby Massie arrived in August, Massie was immediately placed on the left side and was given “every opportunity” to start, offensive line coach Mike Markuson said.
Massie struggled to pick up the speed of the next level in camp and was soon moved to the right side where he could learn behind senior John Jerry.
Sowell won the job, but early test scores were a problem. He struggled at Memphis in the opener and found himself as the focus of fans’ frustration after Dr. Norwood’s performance at South Carolina in Game 3.
Not coincidentally, quarterback Jevan Snead was also struggling, and the two were linked together unwillingly in the spotlight.
“It’s just one of those things where you can’t listen to what others say about you. There are times when people build you up, times when they drag you down,” Snead said. “You have to focus on what you can do to improve. It was tough there for a little bit, but that’s what Bradley and I did.”
As late as Oct. 31, Sowell was still inconsistent. Auburn end Antonio Coleman had an all-star stat line with five tackles, four tackles for loss, two sacks, a forced fumble and four quarterback pressures. The Tigers won 33-20, leaving Ole Miss still in search of one win to gain bowl-eligibility with tough SEC defenses in Tennessee and LSU on the horizon after a non-conference game with Northern Arizona.
The Rebels have responded with three straight wins, allowing only one sack against Tennessee in that stretch.
In addition to improvement by Sowell, there’s a deeper chemistry on the offensive line with Massie moving into the lineup at right tackle and Jerry moving inside to guard.
With Dexter McCluster starting at tailback and becoming a greater focus in the game plan, Ole Miss has risen to sixth in the SEC in rushing offense at 191.3 yards a game.
“As long as you can run the football, then you can play-action pass and have second-and-5 instead of second-and-12 and third-and-12. That’s hard,” Markuson said. “If you look at a lot of the times that Brad has struggled, look at the down and distance. It’s the toughest in football, especially for an offensive lineman going against great people, but he’s gotten better. That’s what we’re happy about. He’s gotten better.”
As a team the Rebels have allowed 14 sacks, fourth in the SEC.
Sowell will be challenged again this week by the Bulldogs’ defensive line. End Pernell McPhee is second in the league with 12 tackles for loss.
“It’s about preparation,” Sowell says. “It’s about being out on the field too. I make it a point to do things right the next time. You have to keep going.”