OXFORD – As Ole Miss begins football practice in five days you can look out across the offense and see the talent – at most positions – that has some people picking the Rebels in the top 10.
Then there’s left tackle. It’s the biggest unknown and the position that could have the greatest effect on what gets done at skill spots like receiver and running back.
And, of course, quarterback.
Average play at left tackle “hurts big-time” in what the entire unit is trying to accomplish, offensive line coach Mike Markuson says.
“If it’s third-and-8, and you get in four wides, the whole stadium knows you’re going to throw the football. Then you’ve got that guy out on an island, and you’re hoping he can get a tie for three seconds against a very good pass rusher.”
Third-year sophomore Bradley Sowell goes into camp No. 1 at the position, but he’ll be pushed by heralded freshman Bobby Massie.
Massie and defensive back Darius Barksdale finished summer school at Hargrave Military last week. Indications are that they will qualify academically, but they’re awaiting word from the NCAA clearinghouse.
Rivals ranked Massie as the No. 1 prep school player in the country last season. He was one of the nation’s top offensive tackles coming out of Liberty Christian Academy in Lynchburg, Va. Scouts rave about the athleticism he brings with a 6-foot-7, 345-pound frame. The Rebels won a heated recruiting battle against Alabama to sign him.
“He’ll be given every opportunity, that’s for sure,” Markuson said.
The door for Massie would not have been closed completely but remains open wider, perhaps, by Sowell’s struggles in spring drills. The 6-7, 310-pounder was considered the heir apparent to All-American Michael Oher. Sowell, however, was demoted in spring drills as a “get your attention” maneuver by the coaching staff. He had regained the starting spot by the Grove Bowl.
The Rebels also lost right guard Darryl Harris but return three other offensive line starters who paved the way for the SEC’s No. 2 rushing offense at 186.5 yards a game in 2008.
“The job is not guaranteed to you,” Sowell said. “It means you have an opportunity to earn it, and you have to earn it every day. When I got demoted that point was driven home to me.”
Sowell says Markuson has discussed with him the importance of getting off to a fast start when practice begins.
“In the past I have started slowly and kind of eased into things. I can’t do that now,” Sowell said.
Markuson says he has full confidence in Sowell to win the job due in large part to Sowell’s success as a blocking tight end in certain situations last year. He even caught a touchdown pass against Mississippi State.
“He shouldn’t have the nervousness of a rookie going out there for the first time,” Markuson said.
Massie may successfully deal with nerves, but it won’t change the fact that he’ll be acclimating to new surroundings and speed of the game unlike anything he’s experienced in his football career to date.
There are some positions in which talented players can often make a seamless transition to the next level. Left offensive tackle isn’t one of those. The “island” responsibilities, the one-on-one battles players are required to win, make it a difficult place to cut your teeth.
Markuson has played young players before, most notably Philadelphia Eagles tackle Shawn Andrews.
“Massie is our second-team guy by default right now,” Markuson said.
“Every indication is Bradley has had a very good summer in the weight room increasing his strength levels. We think he can be a really good tackle in this league. We made some changes in the spring that would hopefully incite and arouse some emotion. I think they did.”
Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal