By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
HOOVER, Ala. – As Ole Miss tries to distance itself from a 4-8 season, there aren’t many preseason rankings that list the Rebels heading into 2011.
There is one poll, though, that lists Ole Miss No. 2 in the nation.
When college football analyst Phil Steele released his rankings of individual units, he put the Rebels offensive line as No. 2 in the nation.
It’s high praise for a group that had six different starting lineups a year ago.
Problems set in early when Rishaw Johnson, a player Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt considered to have All-SEC potential, was dismissed in Week 2.
Then injuries set in, and while tackles Bradley Sowell and Bobby Massie each started every game, the interior was a free for all that included six different players getting a start at right guard and four starts at left guard by a true freshman walk-on, Patrick Junen.
Eventually things settled down, and the offensive line came together. In the spring they took on the look of a unit that can make a difference for an offense trying to find a quarterback and play-making receivers.
“They know what they’re doing. Last season, a lot of guys’ first time playing. They got all those games under their belt, now they know which way to go, where to step. They know who’s who,” senior running back Brandon Bolden said.
Through it all the 2010 Rebels still managed 207.6 rushing yards a game, third in the SEC, and quarterbacks were sacked just 14 times, best in the league.
While the interior was chaotic, the edge was stable. Over the last two years, Sowell has 24 starts at left tackle, Massie 17 at right tackle.
Sowell made the watch lists for the Lombardi and Outland awards that honor the nation’s top linemen. He is a first-team preseason All-SEC choice, Massie a second-team selection.
Taking the lead
The offensive line is the group that must lead the team, Sowell says.
“Absolutely. It always starts up front anyways. We will have a new quarterback, and that’s a big deal. We have to make sure we protect him and keep him from getting hit. We want to make things easy for Brandon,” he said.
Even with the unsettled interior, Bolden ran for 976 yards last year, the fifth-leading rusher in the league.
As things settled down last year, center Aaron Hawkins settled in. He finished with eight starts at center and was named to the Rimington Trophy watch list, an award that honors the top center.
The line could also get a boost with the arrival of Arkansas transfer Matt Hall. A tackle for most of his career, Hall (6-10, 350) won right guard position in the spring.
Hall was a four-star prospect out of Russellville, Ark. He was recruited by Nutt at Arkansas but did not follow Nutt to Ole Miss as part of the 2008 signing class.
“This is the biggest offensive line we’ve ever coached, but to have that much size doesn’t mean anything if you’re not physical and know who to block. I’m really expecting a lot from those guys to set the tone in the trenches,” Nutt said.