OPINION: Rebels’ O-line protects, but can it project force?

There has been some debate over on the blog (and there’s good stuff on the blog, check it out at NEMS360.com) about the use of the words “physical” or “finesse” in describing the Ole Miss offensive line.
With sporadic touchdown success inside the 5-yard line, can the Rebels impose their will in the run game or is this a unit that needs greater technique and maybe some smoke and mirrors to be successful?
When you reach the opponent’s 1-yard line with a first down and can’t move the mass forward to at least break the plane of the goalline, you’re not as physical as you need to be in the red zone.
This has happened once in each of the last two games for Ole Miss, and each time the Rebels were able to adjust and score the big points by running wide on third down.
Other times in the red zone against Arkansas, they were not able to cash in and left points on the table that they’ll need to win against better defenses when LSU and Tennessee visit Oxford later this year.
Fact of the matter is, we’re past the midway point now, and the offensive line has developed a personality. It has evolved into a good pass protection group, and that’s saying a lot given the group’s humble beginnings this season.
Left tackle Bradley Sowell was under the microscope and did not get off to a fast start as the replacement to All-American Michael Oher. Sowell has improved and is holding his own.
“Fundamentally he’s much better, and his pad level is good. The game’s slowed down for him some. I’m proud of how far he’s come,” Nutt said.
Physical line play is good to have. The truest test of an offensive lineman’s manhood is how often he wins the 1-on-1 battle, moves his opponent off the line of scrimmage and watches the running back whisk by for a 6-yard gain.
The bottom line, though, is that not all lines are that physical. If you can’t be physical, you better be finesse. You better be able to pass protect, and the Rebels have been able to do this quite well of late.
The proof is in the numbers of quarterback Jevan Snead, who was completing about 46.7 percent just two weeks ago, but has hit 37-of-55 attempts with five touchdowns and two interceptions in his last two games. That’s 67 percent if you’re scoring at home.
Ole Miss has given up just eight sacks, two behind SEC leader Georgia.
It becomes incumbent upon the coaching staff to put players in the right positions and call the right plays to get the big money when inside the 5.
In the meantime, perhaps a more physical nature from the offensive line and better execution by power backs from point-blank range will keep coming. Nutt thought his offensive line made strides in the run game against Arkansas. Some of that improvement, offensive coordinator Kent Austin said, was due to getting Dexter McCluster on the perimeter.
Still, Nutt and Austin see improvement in attack and execution up front. Nutt attributes much of the improvement to chemistry. That’s why a physical guard, Rishaw Johnson, will not start this week even though he’s back from a two-game suspension.
The next step is a better touchdown ratio when the field shrinks and linemen can see the whites of the eyes of the free safety. That may be where Johnson enters the game Saturday at Auburn.
“We’ve got to bear down,” senior center Daverin Geralds said. “When you get inside the 5, you’ve got to have a different mentality. You’ve got to have the determination that you’re going to push it in no matter what.”

Parrish Alford (parrish.alford@djournal.com) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily about Ole Miss athletics at NEMS360.com.

Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal