It's been nearly four months since a fistfight between Laremy Tunsil and his dubiously-intentioned stepdad launched a three-ring scandal that included, among other things, assault charges filed and dropped on both sides, rumors of yellow convertible-steering agents, TMZ photos, allegations of improper recruiting benefits, a #Grinder of the Year lawyer in Starkville, an NCAA investigator taking an unprecedented length of time to do his job, three loaner cars from Cannon Motors and, finally, a seven-game suspension handed down by the fellas in Indy. But it's almost over.
In the immediate aftermath of the NCAA's announcement that Tunsil will be cleared to return to the field this Saturday against Texas A&M, most of the conversation has been debating whether Tunsil's infractions merited the punishment and the larger issue of the NCAA's institutional hypocrisy. Glossed over, to a large degree, has been the conversation about how, precisely, the return of the best left tackle in the country will affect a reeling Rebels team.
Sure, the unanimous consensus is that it'll make the awful Ole Miss O-line a vaguely-defined degree of "better," but let's take a deeper dive, shall we?
Tunsil is going to play immediately, rust be damned.
When asked two weeks ago whether Tunsil, after missing seven games and seven weeks of first-team practice reps, would jump right back in as the starter when he was cleared, Hugh Freeze replied, "Absolutely," through a wry smile that belied what his Southern clergy manners wouldn't allow him to say: "No shit he's gonna start."
Still, it wouldn't hurt to get a warmup game against a weak opponent, especially since he hasn't played a down since breaking his leg in the Peach Bowl in January. Instead, he'll start his season against Myles Garrett and his league-leading 8.5 sacks.
But Freeze doesn't sound too worried: "[Tunsil] has been in our system long enough, and he is athletic enough, that he should be able to handle coming back when it is time."
But he's not going to magically solve all of the O-line's problems.
Let's get this out of the way early: if you're expecting the Rebs' wretched offensive line to dramatically improve just because Tunsil's back, temper your expectations. One guy can only have so much effect on a five-man unit.
Remember, this line was equally terrible last season, and that was with Tunsil starting 11 games. In fact, the numbers say that this year's unit has performed significantly better in pass protection: Ole Miss has jumped 39 spots in adjusted sack rate since last season.*
*In fairness, this year's data just includes the much easier first half of the Rebs' schedule.
Still, Tunsil makes the whole line better.
This isn't just about Ole Miss getting better at left tackle -- Tunsil's return has a ripple effect along the entire line. Fahn Cooper, who's struggled to fill in for Tunsil on the left side, gets to slide back to his natural home at right tackle, where he started 11 games last season. That in turn benches redshirt freshman Sean Rawlings, who's done an admirable job after being tossed into the fire, but just isn't ready to be a starting SEC lineman.
Here's one clip that shows you all you need to know about how much those two guys have struggled: Rawlings get whipped around the edge while Cooper's man is bullrushing him back into Chad Kelly's lap:
The scheme changes too.
Having Tunsil back on the field does more than just change the personnel -- it changes the way the coaches design and call plays.
Having a stone wall offensive tackle is kinda like having a shut down corner: you can leave him on an island against any opponent and send help to other parts of the field. On a typical football play, there are four defenders rushing against five offensive linemen (if the defense blitzes, the offense will typically keep a tight end or running back in to maintain that numerical advantage), meaning the offense can double-team at it's weakest point. The problem for Freeze this season is that if he double teams on one end of the line, he's getting beat on the other.
But Tunsil changes that. Check out this play from last year's Bama game: the Tide brings just four, allowing the Rebs to double team a defensive tackle with the left guard and center. But Freeze also lends a hand to the overmatched Fahn Cooper by keeping the running back in pass protection. Cooper gets smoked off the line, but Jaylen Walton is there to save the day and help convert a critical third down.
And it's all because Tunsil doesn't need any help on his side.
One workaround Freeze has tried at times this season is having his quarterback do a half rollout, which works like this:
- At the snap, Chad Kelly runs just outside of the tackle box to one side or the other, effectively moving the pocket.
- The offense commits its extra blocker(s) to the side that the pocket has been moved to.
The front side of the play now has an extra blocker. The backside is still screwed, but the defenders on that side now have a longer distance to the quarterback. Freeze is essentially using that increased distance as an extra lineman.
Ingenious, right? Well the problem (other than the fact that you've cut the field in half for your quarterback) is that none of this really matters if you still can't block the front side of the play:
Now at first glance that looks like a poorly-designed play that lets the play-side defensive end run free. But guess what? It's actually Fahn Cooper's fault!
Rolling out to the left side becomes infinitely more reliable with Tunsil back on the field, which, if nothing else, gives Freeze a crutch to lean on when he needs to buy Kelly some time in the pocket. When you think about it, that play call is a pretty workable microcosm for Tunsil's larger effect on this offense. As good as he is, he can't block for the four other guys on the line and shouldn't be viewed as a burnished knight come to save the season. But, if Hugh Freeze and maligned offensive line coach Matt Luke can get creative in their scheming (which is a BIG if at this point), Tunsil's talent and consistency should provide them with some workarounds.