Even Houston Nutt's most ardent critics would agree that, despite his perceived shortcomings in other assets of football coaching, he has repeatedly shown that he can assemble and maintain a successful offensive line. The 2011 installment of Rebel football will hardly serve as an exception to this rule, with Ole Miss boasting one of the largest, most experienced, and capable offensive lines in the Southeastern Conference. Coach Nutt's recruiting, offensive line coach Mike Markuson's tutelage, some luck and a dash of circumstance have all combined to create a Rebel front which should prove itself as one of the nation's best run blocking units - excellent news for fans of Nutt's run-heavy offensive philosophy.
Brandon Bolden - who I see as the most underrated offensive player in the SEC - alongside Jeff Scott and Enrique Davis will benefit tremendously from this line. Last year, this Rebel backfield plus Jeremiah Masoli put together the third most prolific rushing attack in the conference and should, assuming personnel and playcalling remain constant, have similar output this fall.
And that's great. It does give me some cause for renewed Rebel optimism to think that our squad should perform well in arguably the most important asset of the offensive side of the sport. But I do worry that what we have assembled is a dangerously one-dimensional scheme.
Certainly, with regards to linemen, bigger is better. But there is a lot more to football than the use of mass to gain leverage over an opponent. Technique, playcalling, execution, and finesse too play significant roles in the trenches.
Let's take, for example, the other former collegiate home of Jeremiah Masoli and the team which lost to Auburn in the BCS National Championship game on a last-second field goal - the Oregon Ducks. Oregon has become an accomplished football program as of late, winning conference titles and even earning a trip to the BCS Championship Game this past January. If bigger were better, they'd understandably have one of the nation's largest lines.
In fact, the average starting offensive lineman for Oregon is 6'4", 293 pounds. That's large, but still two inches shorter and 32 pounds lighter than the average starting Ole Miss Rebel offensive lineman.
This offensive line is ill-suited to run the type of offense we Rebels have grown accustomed to over the past few years. In fact, they're as much of an antithesis to our offensive line as one can have in big time college ball. Instead of relying heavily on brawn and mass to create downhill lanes for their halfbacks, they use agility and quickness - as much agility and quickness as a 6'4", 293 pound person can have - to move more laterally and downfield, giving the Oregon skill players a better chance to spread the ball and create opportunities in the open field. Oregon, over the past several seasons, have really defined themselves and their offensive line through this type of offense, and some Heisman contenders and Pac 10 trophies are what they've got to show for it.
I find this particularly interesting because when I look at the skill players utilized by a program like Oregon's, I see ones which are mostly similar to the types of players on our offensive depth chart. Their quarterbacks aren't big-armed, pro-style types; they're quicker, nimble spread-opiton players. Their halfbacks aren't rough bruisers; they're agile sprinters. Their wideouts aren't lengthy deep threats; they're swift and handsy. It's a different type of offensive machine altogether which operates at an incredibly high level, and it doesn't rely primarily on the simpler variables of size and strength.
Is this style of offense best for Ole Miss? Considering the talents of Brandon Bolden and Enrique Davis, perhaps not (although, I think it's fair for me to mention that I don't think there's a style of football Bolden is incapable of playing). But when looking at the skillsets possessed by Randall Mackey, Barry Brunetti, or Jeff Scott, I say yes.
As I see it, our offensive line is the right tool for the right job. I just worry that they're a bit of a unitasker. A more versatile Rebel offense could, over the next few seasons, be achieved if a more versatile Rebel offensive line were recruited and coached.
Don't let this bridle any excitement you may have regarding this offensive line. It's a good one, and it's one that will keep our team competitive throughout the season. It's just that, if the Rebel fan base is to expect a more dynamic, varied offense this fall, the Rebel coaches and players will need to commit to such, and it all starts up front. Mass and force are properties of an offensive line which are crucial to on-field success; they're just not the only properties we should expect out of our big uglies.
I hope new offensive coordinator David Lee is up to task. He's got a hell of a line to work with, and I expect some exciting things out of them.