By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Injuries and class schedules can sometimes be a mixed blessing in spring football.
That’s what Ole Miss is experiencing right now as it continues to build depth along the offensive line.
The Rebels return four starters up front, starters who played the overwhelming number of snaps when Ole Miss went 7-6 and won the BBVA Compass Bowl in the first year of the Hugh Freeze Era.
Offensive line coach Matt Luke is trying to establish a trust factor with more of his reserves. That trust may be deepened when four new freshmen – including the nation’s top 2013 OL prospect in Laremy Tunsil – arrive in August.
“A lot of guys are being forced into some reps. We’re mixing and matching a little bit. The depth is growing,” Luke said.
Junior Aaron Morris, the starting left guard, is being held out of spring drills after shoulder surgery.
Senior Emmanuel McCray misses much of the morning practices with a class conflict. The only starter lost has been A.J. Hawkins at right guard. Former walk-on Patrick Junen got the most snaps of the reserves last year and has stepped into that position.
He didn’t get nearly as many snaps as the rest, though, and at times this spring has been an illustration of what Freeze has always said about his offensive line relative to his up-tempo style offense. The linemen are the last to “get it” and are the ones who most bear the brunt of change from a traditional slower pace.
“Pat’s doing well. We’ve just got to get him finishing every time, getting in football shape. That’s the biggest thing. We’ve had a couple of tempo drives where he got kind of winded. He’s playing well,” Luke said.
The Rebels are enjoying a three-day Easter break which Freeze stretched a little longer by scheduling an early morning practice Friday and an 8 p.m., workout for Monday, giving players a little longer to get back into town.
In the quest for depth redshirt freshman Robert Conyers, junior Justin Bell and senior Jared Duke may be closest to getting on the field.
Long-time reserve Corey Gaines, who Luke had identified at the end of bowl practice as a physical player who could make a depth chart move, has transferred out of the program.
Conyers has gotten a lot of reps at right tackle, some with the first team, as starter Pierce Burton moves to the left side while McCray is in class.
Bell and Duke are getting the reps that would otherwise got to Morris in addition to second-team reps.
With 22 starts, senior center Evan Swindall is the elder statesmen up front.
McCray, Burton and Morris will all be second-year starters, though Morris earned six starts as a freshman in 2011.
“The continuity hasn’t changed much. Me and Junen have been playing together since we first got here,” Swindall said. “I feel like I got better throughout last season. I’m more focused now on making the correct calls and putting myself in correct position to make the blocks.”