Perhaps Hugh Freeze has done Matt Luke and the Ole Miss offensive line a disservice. Freeze has coached, recruited, repurposed, and redeveloped a ragtag roster into an SEC contender in three short years, while Luke's offensive line has generally been credited with two late-season collapses. A running game that has produced 2nd-and-11 more often than 2nd-and-6, along with an unreliable pocket for Bo Wallace, has left many fans miffed at Matt Luke's inability to mirror the miracles that Freeze has been performing elsewhere.
Of course, it'd be lying by omission to ignore some of the challenges Luke has faced. Laremy Tunsil has been injured at critical moments (Auburn 2014 and MSU 2013 come to mind), Austin Golson tucked tail and ran to Auburn under dubious circumstances, Aaron Morris has gone under the knife twice, and several offensive linemen developed weight issues while under the summer supervision of Paul Jackson. Even dating back to 2012, Luke lost his most talented returning lineman, Bobby Massie, to the draft. Offensive linemen already take longer to develop than arguably any other position group, so this string of bad luck has hit Luke's unit especially hard.
Even with these caveats in mind, 2015 is very much a make-or-break year for Luke. With greater depth in place, an increased emphasis on downhill running by Freeze, and the top seven or so linemen from 2014 all returning, Luke will be expected to produce results sooner rather than later. And while there is experience, talent, and potential at each position, he still has his work cut out for him.
Let's take a look at each position.
The offensive tackle position, though not as razor-thin as last year, is still lacking in experience and depth. While Laremy Tunsil is arguably the best linemen in all of college football, his right-side counterpart, Fahn Cooper, struggled at times, and behind Cooper were virtually no viable options. This year, one would hope that Cooper will benefit from the second-year bump that many JUCO players see. Apparently, coach reviews on Cooper are extremely positive heading into camp.
Still, it's hard not to be concerned when the next man up at tackle may be a redshirt freshmen, originally signed as a center (Sean Rawlings). While Rawlings' development is impressive and encouraging (word is that he's worked himself into great shape in a short period), it's perplexing that Christian Morris hasn't put himself in a more competitive position, and downright sad that Davion Johnson's career was cut short by injury before it really began. Robert Conyers is a valuable piece at tackle, though this offseason he's again competing mainly to earn a starting spot at center. More on that later.
Offensive guard has been easily the most-maligned position group over the last two seasons. With two young five stars pushing two senior veterans for time, one would hope that this is the year that Ole Miss can field two competent guards at the same time. As we found out last week though, taking this for granted can be foolish. Sophomore Rod Taylor sustained a shoulder injury while doing what could be gently described as "some stupid bullshit." Taylor will try to play through the season, though one would think that the task of shoving around huge athletic men for 60 minutes would be greatly facilitated by the full use of both of one's shoulders. We'll see...
The brighter side of the situation at guard starts with a healthy, fitter Aaron Morris. After establishing himself as Ole Miss' best lineman in 2012, Morris blew up to over 350 pounds, tore his ACL, sat out 2013, hobbled through 2014, then tore his ACL again. We don't really know what finally turned Morris around, but here he is in camp at 315ish pounds, working hard and holding on to a starting spot. On the other side, Justin Bell lost 15 or so pounds as well. Through his career, Bell has shown that he loves getting upfield and laying guys out, though last season, getting upfield quickly enough was clearly a struggle. Fortunately, Bell and Morris both have Javon Patterson to worry about behind them. Currently backing up Morris at left guard, Patterson may be learning both spots, now that Taylor may be limited. Early word is that Patterson will play quite a lot.
Behind those four, Freeze has said encouraging things about Jordan Sims and Daronte Bouldin. Sims has undergone the biggest body transformation of anyone on the Ole Miss roster, losing 60ish pounds over his redshirt season. Bouldin has always been praised as perhaps the strongest Rebel football player, though that seemingly hasn't translated into him competing for serious playing time yet. Freeze even mentioned Tyler Putman, a former grayshirt from Olive Branch. It would be shocking to see Putman playing this year, but it will be interesting to see how he progresses.
The center position should be a strength this year, as two experienced guys fight for the starting spot. Ben Still started through most of 2014, but Robert Conyers was always pushing Still while still contributing at right tackle. Conyers also started the Egg Bowl, and showed that he was rangier and perhaps more effective in the run game than Still. This offseason, Conyers has indicated that although he values his role as a utility backup, he'd obviously rather just start. I'm in favor (obviously) of Ole Miss getting meaner and more athletic along the line wherever possible, so I'd love to see Conyers start. In Still's defense though, he appears to be a terrifically reliable snapper, and also seems to do well against larger defensive tackles.
Justin Bell is also seeing some looks at center. I'm not sure what the end goal is for Freeze and Luke here. It's beyond my observational knowledge to tell if Bell offers anything as a center than Still and Conyers don't, or if the staff is just preparing for several different depth/injury scenarios.
There are also a few peripheral pieces in place that could help the offensive line and the run game. Jeremy Liggins looks to play a significant role as an every-down tight end after spending the spring at left tackle. Evan Engram has made a point to improve his blocking as well, and senior transfer Dillon Barrett looks to add quality depth. Essentially, the line may be able to rely on better blocking assistance from the TE position than in years past.
Also not to be overlooked: as effective as Bo Wallace usually was, his nagging shoulder injuries made his deep ball an iffy endeavor most of the time. This really makes his efficiency and production that much more impressive, when defenses KNEW that Wallace wasn't going to beat them deep. This year, all three quarterbacks in the race, especially Kelly and Kincade, have quicker releases and more drive on deep balls than Wallace usually had at his disposal. If Ole Miss can set up the long ball more effectively, the entire defense might be forced to spread out a bit.
It seems as though the pieces are in place for Ole Miss to improve along the offensive line. There is also enough uncertainty that Luke's unit remains the biggest question mark, even as the Rebels hash out a three-way quarterback battle. Fortunately, Freeze has made it a point of personal and team pride to emphasize more physical, downhill runs, avoiding negative yards at all costs. Though it may seem like mere coach speak, Freeze has shown that he can engineer a running game based on team strengths.
Fortunately, the time for prognostication and guesswork is almost over. Heading into the season opener, Luke and Freeze know that all eyes will be on the big men.