By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Spring football begins today at Ole Miss, the first go-round on the field for the Rebels with new head coach Hugh Freeze.
There will be a lot of emphasis on names like Randall Mackey, Zack Stoudt, Barry Brunetti and Bo Wallace – the quarterbacks.
But don’t forget about names like Evan Swindall, A.J. Hawkins, Matt Hall and Patrick Junen – the offensive linemen.
Freeze says he’s identified in coaching circles as a “spread offense guy.” He hasn’t warmed up to the description, preferring to talk more of his system’s tempo than its geography.
It’s the pace that keeps opponents on their heels, he says. Conseqently, it could be the pace that makes the offensive linemen the last group to become comfortable with the system.
“Spring will be a shock to their system, because of the tempo we want them to go at. They’re not going to be used to that,” Freeze said.
He said it took his offensive linemen at Arkansas State two years to “get it,” but under Freeze the Red Wolves improved from No. 95 in the nation in total offense the year prior to his arrival, to No. 43 his first season, No. 24 in his second season.
“We were a lot better the second year at that spot. Receivers and running backs can get accustomed to it a little easier than the O linemen, particularly when they haven’t done it. I think it’s going to be a process, but I know I’ve got the right guy leading them in Matt Luke,” Freeze said.
Junen was a spot starter at guard as a sophomore. Swindall, a sophomore, took over for the junior Hawkins midway through the season, and Hall, a junior started 12 games at right guard after spending his career as a tackle.
It was the first season of competition for Hall at Ole Miss after transferring from Arkansas.
Those four represent the bulk of experience returning from 2011’s troubled offensive line.
Last year, college football analyst Phil Steele pegged Ole Miss as the No. 2 offensive line in the nation in his preseason rankings for various position units.
The Rebels finished No. 83 in the nation in rushing offense, and that was the good news. They were No. 107 in passing offense, No. 114 in total offense and No. 116 in scoring offense.
Luke wants to start all players with a clean slate. Upon joining Freeze’s staff, he considered watching no video at all on returning players, but ultimately gave in to temptation.
“I couldn’t help myself, I did watch some of it,” Luke said.
He describes his players as eager for improvement and change. His video study was simply to get an idea where to put players on Day 1 of spring. All bets are off for Day 2 and beyond.
Luke anticipates shuffling of players.
“It might turn out that there might not be any changes, but I’m going to try to find some different combinations. If the backup left tackle is better than the first string right guard, well that’s where he’s going to play,” he said.
He also expects to see skill and athleticism from junior college transfer Pierce Burton (6-7, 290), the favorite to win the job at left tackle.
“I expect him to be able to play on the edge and to pass block space. That’s why we recruited him,” Luke said.
Ole Miss has two openings at tackle after the loss of senior Bradley Sowell and the early departure of Bobby Massie for the NFL draft.
Hawkins, Swindall, Hall, Junen and others could find themselves in different positions.
“I want to find the five best players who are going to compete and know how to play. I want to figure out who’s going to compete and who’s not going to before we get out there in our first game,” Luke said.