The Ole Miss left tackle is expected to replace all-American Michael Oher and wants to be anonymous, just like offensive linemen should be. But worries over how successful he'll be are one of the few shadows looming over the Rebels as they prepare to open what they think will be a special season.
"I'm not really a big limelight kind of guy," Sowell said. "I'm kind of an under-the-radar type person. I'll try and have a good season and if they talk they talk. I'm not going to worry about it."
Ready or not, Sowell is in the spotlight. At 6-foot-7 and 305 pounds, the sophomore from Hernando has the athletic body of a left tackle. But he has little experience after a season of backing up Oher, a first-round NFL draft pick by the Baltimore Ravens who almost never left the field in his distinguished four-year career.
Worse, to the many fans who talk incessantly about such things in the offseason, Sowell appears to be, gulp, a nice guy. And nice guys don't get very far in the rough-and-tumble world of Southeastern Conference football.
Sowell's mission is the most important on the team this season. He must protect quarterback Jevan Snead's blind side. Mentioned as an outsider candidate for the Heisman Trophy, Snead must be upright if he's going to lead the Rebels' charge into BCS relevance.
Coach Houston Nutt says he has paid close attention to Sowell's progress throughout the offseason.
"You don't really know how much you miss Michael Oher until you go through those films this summer and watch him protect Jevan," Nutt said. "We are very proud of Bradley Sowell, though. He has really trained hard and gotten stronger. He is very athletic, but he hasn't seen what is getting ready to come after him."
Sowell, and his ability to get angry when faced by the nation's top pass rushers every week, is the most prominent question for a team that has few entering the season. The Rebels will likely be a Top 10 entry, but they'll only stay that way if they can fill three size XXL holes left along the line.
Also gone are guards Maurice Miller and Darryl Harris, leaving just two regular returning starters — right tackle John Jerry and center Daverin Geralds. Part-time starter Reid Neely, who had six last season, returns as well. The other guard position is in flux after projected starter Rishaw Johnson was demoted for breaking team rules. Brandon Green seems the likely starter there now.
With all the talent Ole Miss returns at the skill positions, sometimes it's easy to overlook the line. But Snead learned early on in his football career what happens when the line's not a seamless unit. It becomes paramount when a 260-pound defensive end is taking aim at your back while moving 15 mph.
After a spring and summer with Sowell watching his back in scrimmages, Snead says he's unconcerned and is doing his part to take some pressure off the tackle.
"You go against the best defenses in the country, so you're going to get some pressure," Snead said. "It's inevitable. It's just one of the things to deal with. That's why I do footwork drills and stuff to try and get away from those guys. I have all the confidence in the world in Bradley and the rest of the offensive line."
Sowell has taken the first steps. He bought into the team's conditioning program and has completely reshaped his body from flabby to fit. He's working to get stronger and faster, and his coaches have noticed.
"He continues to get better," offensive line coach Mike Markuson said. "He's a team player and he wants to be the guy. He knows he's filling some big shoes with Michael Oher and we've challenged him, and he's been a great soldier. He's come out, he's worked out every day. He's got to continue to work on the fundamentals of the game, just like the rest of them, but so far he's done very well."
Still, there's the chatter from the naysayers. Many believe recruit Bobby Massie will supplant Sowell quickly. At 6-foot-8 and 340 pounds, Massie is massive and comes with the pedigree you'd expect to replace Oher.
Oher was declared a natural in high school by talent scouts and was something of a celebrity before he ever hit campus. A homeless teen, he was adopted by a Memphis, Tenn., family and had a book written about him that is now being made into a movie.
Massie just arrived in Oxford a few weeks ago. While he adds immediate depth, he'll need time to learn. That gives Sowell a little time to lock up the position.
"He's still feeling his way through right now," Markuson said of Massie. "There's a lot of learning going on right now, the fundamentals of the game, the speed of the game. He's just got to continue working every day. But we've seen signs of what he can do when he gets onto somebody and locks onto them. He's just such a big-bodied guy, when he locks on to you you're not getting off."
Nutt isn't worried about how his line will come together. He thinks preseason practice against the Rebels defensive line will go a long way to preparing the unit. That group is a handful with all significant players, including defensive end Greg Hardy, returning except one from a unit that tied for the national lead in tackles for loss.
"We let them go against Greg Hardy, Marcus Tillman and Kentrell Lockett," Nutt said. "They have the best format to get ready and to accelerate their learning curve. We will put them in situations that are much more difficult than it is in the game."