OXFORD – Bradley Sowell will take the field to replace an All-American on Sunday afternoon. It will be his second chance at a good first impression.
No. 8 Ole Miss will open the school’s most anticipated football season in modern history with most of its key players back on both offense and defense.
Missing, however, is left offensive tackle Michael Oher, a first-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens.
Sowell, a third-year sophomore, had the chance in the spring to grab hold of the position with both hands. Instead he held it like a stick of butter, and it almost slipped through his hands.
“We went through his little ordeal in the spring, but we’re over that,” offensive line coach Mike Markuson said.
Sowell had been considered the heir apparent to replace Oher, but a passive approach to spring drills resulted in an “ordeal” that got him demoted from the first team. He rallied and left spring as the starter, but the move served as a wake-up call.
Sowell, a 6-foot-7, 305-pound sophomore from Hernando, has described the ordeal as humbling.
“I knew I had guys coming in who were really good. I had to pin my ears back and go to work,” he said.
One of those guys was heralded freshman Bobby Massie, rated the No. 13 tackle in the nation leaving high school two years ago. Ole Miss edged Alabama to land Massie in February.
Coaches hoped Massie would challenge for the starting job, but it was evident early he would need some time to acclimate to the speed of SEC football. He started out behind Sowell at left tackle but has since moved to right tackle behind senior John Jerry.
Sowell, though, has apparently won the job not by default but because of an impressive month of camp. Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt and Markuson have both praised Sowell’s work.
More importantly, so has Kentrell Lockett, a returning starter at defensive end. The Ole Miss defensive line is considered among the best in the country, and Sowell has locked up with Lockett, a returning starter, on more than one occasion.
“He’s won some battles,” Nutt said
“He’s changed drastically since the spring. It was easy to get around him in the spring,” Lockett said. “Now he’ll dig in an elbow or pull your facemask … typical offensive lineman. He wasn’t really doing that in the spring. He’s maturing into an offensive lineman and doing what he needs to do.”
Memphis will test Ole Miss with a defensive line that has four seniors and three juniors among its two-deep. The lone exception is 6-5, 350-pound freshman tackle Dontari.
Sowell will match up against 6-2, 260-pound end Jada Brown, a former Ole Miss signee. Brown had 31⁄2 tackles for loss and two sacks last season.
Sowell will be starting for the first time, but he’ll benefit from having played last season. He was Oher’s backup but was better known for his spot duty as an extra tight end. He even caught a touchdown pass against Mississippi State, displaying athleticism and footwork that could go a long way for him at left tackle.
While the return of quarterback Jevan Snead has fueled excitement around the program, much of what Snead will be able to accomplish will be affected by the quality of play at left tackle. Sowell is the blind side protector. The Rebels’ offensive line gave up 20 sacks last year, fourth in the SEC.
“It’s a critical position. A lot of things happen there, especially if you have a right-handed quarterback,” Nutt said.
With that in mind Sowell says he feels no added pressure stepping into Oher’s big shoes.
“I got to play quite a bit last year, so I know what to expect. Once I get the first few hits out of the way I’ll be all right.”
Markuson hopes the same will be said for the entire offense. He expresses confidence in Sowell in spite of the spring ordeal.
“Bradley has done very well in camp. He’s been a physical guy. He’s gotten better in pass protections,” Markuson said. “You want guys to be excited in the spring, but it’s always a long time away from the season. Right now, guys react differently.”
Contact Parrish Alford at email@example.com or at 678-1600.
Parrish Alford/ NEMS Daily Journal