Ole Miss football has seen a lot of growing pains over the past few seasons on both sides of the ball, with changeover of coordinators and an entirely revamped coaching staff under head coach Lane Kiffin. During all of the transition, there has been a lot of frustration that resulted in disheartening losses that have become all too familiar to Rebel fans. In the moments of pure anguish, the few bright spots require proper recognition and the largest lies coming into the 2020 with the offensive performance on the ground from last season.
With a group of talented runners in the backfield, Ole Miss ran for over 3,000 yards in 2019. New offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby is likely to throw the ball more than his predecessor did a year ago, but that doesn’t mean he will shy away from handing the ball off. In fact, while at UCF, he ran the ball 42.9 times per game and attempted 35.2 passes on average.
Whether through the air or on the ground, an offense cannot move the ball without the offensive line leading the way. The group saw a rotation of bodies early in 2019, but seemed to settle into its final form by the end of the season. Led by coach Randy Clements, who has coached numerous All-Americans, consistent all-conference players in the Big 12 and AAC, and the Big 12’s Offensive Lineman of the Year for four consecutive seasons from 2012-15, the Rebel lineman won’t see a large amount of new faces in 2020.
Looking at the roster from year to year, here is a projected starting five for the Big Uglies:
Left Tackle — Nick Broeker
Coming to Oxford in the 2019 recruiting class, Nick Broeker was listed as Rivals’ lowest-rated three-star recruit in the 2019 recruiting class, while ESPN had him as a four-star prospect. At 6-foot-6, 290 pounds, the Springfield, Ill. saw a lot of action a year ago and proved Rivals to be wrong. He was named to 247Sports’ True Freshman All-American team and given a Freshman All-American honorable mention by Pro Football Focus, who gave him a significant shoutout in Week 10.
Broeker played 474 snaps over the course of 12 games and allowed just one sack on 213 pass block attempts. After rotating series with senior Michael Howard at left tackle, and seeing the occasional spot play at right tackle early in the season, he won the starting role by Egg Bowl. For someone of his stature, Broeker has a quick first step and gets off the ball with a wide base and firm footing.
Ole Miss gained 483 total yards in its 31-17 win over Arkansas, and he did not miss an assignment, allow a sack or quarterback hurry. See here as he picks up the far twist stunt at left tackle, gets his hands on the tackle and finishes through the whistle.
The Rebels ran for 413 yards against Vanderbilt and Broeker scored 100 percent effort on 29 snaps. On this play, he seals the edge with the tight end on the near side and the far tight end comes around to clean up. Snoop Conner scores virtually untouched.
Broeker had moments where he is beat firmly on the edge or is simply out-muscled at the line of scrimmage in his freshman year. He got the mistakes out of the way and showed glimpses of being the real deal. Getting stronger with another offseason and refining his form under Clements, expect him to reach the league one day.
Left Guard — Royce Newman
As the oldest of the bunch, Newman is another Illinois native that will be the presumed incumbent on the line. The 6-foot-5, 305-pound redshirt senior was a four-star tackle prospect in the 2016 recruiting class. He saw time in a reserve role on the ends in 2017 and 2018, but made the switch to guard in 2019 and started all 12 games in that spot with 768 snaps at left guard and 141 at right guard. He, like Broeker, allowed just one sack over the course of the year. The left side of the line, for two starters playing their position for the first season on the collegiate level, was pretty locked down.
Ole Miss put up 384 total yards against the Egg Bowl and Newman tallied a team-high 79 snaps. He helped the Rebels run for 139 yards and two touchdowns. The ball doesn’t get anywhere on this play, but you can see Newman line up as the left guard, get off the ball as the low man, lock his arms at the numbers and use his 305 pounds to out-muscle the Mississippi State defensive tackle.
Despite the high volume of snaps and again failure to advance the ball, watch here as he throws his weight around late in the game and is quick to the second level. Newman gets through the gap and breaks down, ready to take on the crashing linebacker.
In pass protection, he did not surrender a quarterback hit or a sack. His transition between tackle and guard went smoothly and Newman could quite possibly find himself on draft boards under the tutelage of Clement.
Center — Eli Johnson
Redshirt senior Eli Johnson took over the position in 2019 and will resume the same role this season as the only true, experienced center on the roster. The 6-foot-1, 303-pound Mississippi native has established himself as a leader both on and off the field, and will be crucial to the success of the line in 2020. Of 377 pass blocks a year ago, Johnson allowed just one sack and rarely allowed the middle to collapse.
Admittedly, there were moments when he could not keep his footing firm and would end the play on the ground, but they were few and far between. He has good vision and thinks quickly at the line of scrimmage. Here, he shows perfect form on the double team block and extends his right arm strong while keeping his body open and downfield before pushing off and moving to the second level.
Johnson may not have the “it” factor to make the league, but it is not a stretch to imagine that his consistency could grow into a technical wizard under Clements and take him to the next level in some capacity.
Right Guard — Ben Brown
Barring injury, right guard Ben Brown will be a starter in the NFL one day. As a redshirt junior in 2020, he is 6-foot-5, 320 pounds and brings strength, form and agility to the field. His ability to get left and right is extremely fluid for someone of his size and the speed to the next level is impressive.
Ben Brown (Ole Miss, RG) is another IOL to keep an eye on. He’s powerful in the run game and a physical pass blocker.— Dante Collinelli (@DanteCollinelli) June 14, 2020
I love how he looks for work despite being left alone on this play. pic.twitter.com/AxhEDtU32m
Brown started all 14 games in his first two seasons at Ole Miss and immediately made an impact. He was named to the SEC All-Freshman team after he led the team with 10 knockdown blocks in 2018. Brown’s strong arms couple with his firm stance and beefy lower body to thrash the defenders across the line.
He allowed zero sacks, hits or hurries in 2019. What more needs to be said? If Brown is not pro-ready now (he is), he will continue to groom into Clement’s next big prospect in 2020.
Right Tackle — Jeremy James
The right tackle position is the only real question mark on Ole Miss’ line in 2020, but redshirt freshman Jeremy James will likely fill the position. He was a consensus three-star prospect in the 2019 signing class, but stands 6-foot-6, 330 pounds and had offers from Nebraska, Missouri, Florida and Miami. The Cumming, Ga. native played inside and outside in high school, but primarily lined up at right tackle, where he will take over for Alex Givens and Bryce Matthews.
He may be a three-star recruit and might not bring overwhelming athleticism, but he has a powerful punch at the line of scrimmage and does a good job engaging at the point of attack. On run plays he drives defenders into the ground and does a good job in pass protection of giving space but using his length to keep defenders away from the quarterback.
He performed well in the small window of opportunity he saw in 2019, but the redshirt year certainly proved valuable for a raw frame. Expect some time to adjust and blown plays early (as comes with most first-year starters in the SEC) but Clement will get his hands on James and mold him into a solid right tackle.
There was a lot of turnover between the 2018 and 2019 offensive lines. To Matt Luke and Jack Bicknell’s credit, the former linemen and line coaches did a good job of adding depth with their last recruiting classes. Jalen Cunningham saw time at left guard in 2019 and was ultimately passed over, but the 6-foot-4, 365 Alabama native is a more-than-viable backup. Bryce Ramsey is versatile as an interior offensive lineman and will primarily backup Johnson in 2020. Senior and former four-star recruit Chandler Tuitt didn’t quite step up into a starting role like many expected, but he will backup Brown at left guard and bring experience wherever deemed necessary should the injury bug hit.
When Kiffin took over in December, he saw a similar void of depth on the line and went to work recruiting massive bodies alongside Clements and Lebby. 6-foot-6 Mississippi native Eli Acker had committed to the previous regime and stuck with the new staff in the 2020 class. The ESPN four-star recruit will presumably backup Broeker in 2020 and could move to right tackle with time. 6-foot-7, 300-pound German native Tobias Braun will presumably redshirt but brings another huge lineman to the room. Add incoming freshman 6-foot-6, 255-pound Luke Shouse and 6-foot-5, 275-pound Cedric Melton to the mix.
The line is giant, Clements has consistently transformed bodies to talents and the Rebels are well-protected. Big Uglies lead the way!