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Ole Miss’ young offensive line needs to grow up fast

The Rebs have the talent to help fill the void left by Laremy Tunsil and others. But can the underclassmen develop quickly enough to weather a brutal start to the season?

O-line during spring practice Josh McCoy/Ole Miss Athletics

Two weeks out from the opening game of the 2016 season, Ole Miss still hasn’t revealed (or more likely, doesn’t know) who’s going to immediately replace the greatest offensive lineman in the history of its program.

The long-term answer is easy enough: at some point or another, Greg Little will ascend to his rightful place as the next great Rebel blindside protector. But the coaching staff in Oxford is in no rush to start a freshman at left tackle, even if he was the highest rated bookend blocker of the 2016 recruiting class.

"Everybody is comparing [Little] to Laremy Tunsil the junior, not to Laremy Tunsil the true freshman that didn’t start until the [third] game," offensive line coach Matt Luke told The Clarion-Ledger during the first week of fall practice. "Everybody assumes he came in and started immediately, but it took him a little time to get in. I think it’s only fair we give [Little] some time to get going."

Hugh Freeze and his staff seem content to bring Little along slowly, a perfectly logical plan when you consider that whoever starts the Rebels’ first three games at left tackle will have to face two of the top 10 defensive end prospects of the 2017 NFL Draft: Bama’s Jonathan Allen and Florida State’s DeMarcus Walker.

The conundrum with Little is indicative of the larger question facing an Ole Miss offensive line replacing a combined 143 career starts-worth of veteran blockers: the young talent is there, but can underclassmen like Little, Alex Givens, Sean Rawlings, Javon Patterson and Jordan Sims develop quickly enough to give the Rebs a shot at the SEC title in 2016?

Projecting the opening-day depth chart

Rod Taylor Javon Patterson Robert Conyers Jordan Sims Sean Rawlings
Greg Little Daronte Bouldin Eli Johnson Daronte Bouldin Alex Givens
Jeremy Liggins Tyler Putman Sam Johnson Michael Howard Bryce Mathews

Offensive tackle is a major question mark

It’s sounding more and more like Ole Miss might bridge the gap between Tunsil and Little with converted guard Rod Taylor, who Freeze recently said is leading the competition after taking the majority of the first-team reps during fall camp. The other option is redshirt freshman Alex Givens, who took first-team snaps during the spring but has spent most of his timethis fall as the second-team right tackle. Little, meanwhile, has been working with the second and third teams on the left side. Also figuring into the mix will be converted tight end/fullback/wildcat QB Jeremy Liggins, who's expected to return from his suspension by the end of spring camp.

The task of replacing Tunsil becomes even more daunting when you compare last year's offense with and without him—a comparison made convenient by his seven-game NCAA suspension. Against Power 5 opponents (and Memphis) without Tunsil, the Rebs averaged 2.7 yards per carry, allowed three sacks per game and went 2-2. Against Power 5 foes following Tunsil’s return in Week 8, Ole Miss averaged 5.3 yards per carry, surrendered 0.8 sacks per game and went 4-1 down the stretch of the regular season (and were a fourth-and-25 away from 5-0).

And don’t forget that Ole Miss also has to replace starting right tackle Fahn Cooper, who was an NFL Draft pick himself (fifth round to the 49ers). That role will likely be filled by Sean Rawlings, who started seven games there as a true freshman while Cooper was filling in for Tunsil on the left side. Rawlings had his ups and downs, but was pretty damn impressive considering the way he was thrown into the fire.

Even with Cooper and (for half of the season, at least) Tunsil, the Rebs ranked 72nd in the country in passing-down sack rate (7.5 percent) last season. The prospect of that number getting worse while the young guys adjust is alarming for an offense that relies so heavily on the vertical pass. Chad Kelly’s athleticism will help buy time in the pocket and erase more than a few sacks, but at some point he’ll need his bookends to give him some help.

Consider this stat from Pro Football Focus: when given at least 2.5 seconds to throw, Kelly had the highest quarterback rating in the country last season.

The interior of the O-line should be better in 2016

Buoyed by the Tunsil surge, the Rebels’ ground numbers ended up being surprisingly good last season: 24th in rushing S&P+, 13th in rushing success rate and 34th in adjusted line yards (an advanced stat that divvies up rushing yards between runners and the offensive line), all according to SB Nation's Bill C.

What those numbers don’t show, however, is the interior line’s inability to move defenders off the ball in running situations. On passing downs (defined as second-and-8 or more, third-and-5 or more, or fourth-and-5 or more), defensive respect for Kelly allowed the Rebel ground attack to romp for 4.42 line yards per carry, best in the nation. But on standard downs, when defenses were more likely to play the run, Ole Miss ranked 101st in the nation at 2.7 line yards per carry.

In fact, the more obvious the running situation, the more the offensive line struggled: Ole Miss ranked 127th out of 128 FBS teams when it came to converting third/fourth-and-short situations on the ground. Exasperated with the line’s inability to generate push, the coaches tried to move the pile by handing off to Robert Nkemdiche and Jeremy Liggins. That didn’t go well.

Things should improve inside this season, though. Gone are veteran guards Aaron Morris and Justin Bell, whose experience (50 career starts between them) was often mitigated by injury and weight problems. Replacing them are promising sophomores Javon Patterson and Jordan Sims. Patterson is a former five star whose freshman inconsistency kept him from pinning down a starting spot last season, but whose raw potential has him listed on the preseason All-SEC third team. Sims, a former three-star, was one of the best surprises of 2016, emerging from general obscurity to start five games and play in all 13. If one of the younger tackles ends up starting over Rod Taylor at any point, he should be able to move back inside to form a sturdy three-man rotation.

Then there’s Robert Conyers, who’s back as the starting center after going down with an ACL tear against Memphis last season. He’s certainly not the most talented guy on the line, but has plenty of experience under his belt and should be an improvement over Ben Still.

Throw in a dynamic backfield that includes the powerful Akeem Judd and the explosive Eric Swinney, and there’s a good chance that this could be the most efficient running team Freeze has fielded during his time in Oxford.