The Big Picture:
If one were to look at SEC offensive stats, it would be hard to conclude that the Ole Miss offensive line in 2022 was anything below top-tier; the Rebels owned the league’s top rushing attack (by 20 yards per game over the next-best team), and was tied for second behind Georgia with the fewest sacks allowed. But it was the offensive front that most often failed the eye test, with quarterback Jaxson Dart seemingly always dodging free rushers right off the snap. Bad snaps were occasionally an issue, and the offense’s lack of red zone success was often maddening. The issue with the offensive line was twofold: first, the Rebs chose to start redshirt freshmen at both tackle spots, and the other three starters were all working at totally new positions. Second, Lane Kiffin took a bit of a gamble with his offensive line coach, hiring Jake Thornton from Gardner Webb following the 2020 season. Thornton had produced impressive results in his early career, but he was not yet 30 when hired at Ole Miss, and had only been an offensive line coach for a couple of years. Thornton was hired away by Auburn this offseason (without much fight from Kiffin), and was replaced by the much more experienced John Garrison. The Rebs return four starters for the 2023 season, and added two important pieces from the transfer portal.
Let’s take a look at who Ole Miss returns:
- Jayden Williams overtook Jeremy James as the starting left tackle during Fall camp in 2022. A redshirt freshman, Williams took his lumps at times during the season, but his athletic advantage at the key blindside position was also obvious at times. Williams will hopefully show marked improvement in his second year as a starter
- Eli Acker has started nine games at right guard over the first two years of his Ole Miss career, including four starts as a true freshman and five as a sophomore. Heading into his junior season, Acker looks to be a full-time starter for the first time, this time slotting in at left guard.
- Caleb Warren started his career as a guard, but made the switch to center in 2022, starting 12 of 13 games on the year. Warren struggled early with bad snaps, but improved as the year wore on. He’s been injured a good bit throughout Fall camp, with fellow veteran Reece McIntyre practicing with the first team offensive line in his stead. Now healthy heading into his senior year, Warren will likely have a position battle ahead of him, as McIntyre has played well in his absence.
- Reece McIntyre, also a senior this year, started two games at guard as a redshirt freshman, but in his sophomore and junior years was largely relegated to special teams. It’s not clear why former OL coach Jake Thornton didn’t envision McIntyre as part of his regular rotation, but John Garrison apparently thinks he’s plenty serviceable.
- Jeremy James has an impressive 36 starts under his belt, starting every game at either right guard or right tackle over the past three seasons for Ole Miss. With some preseason all-conference nods, James is probably the Rebels’ best overall offensive lineman. He’ll start at right guard.
- Micah Pettus was the Rebels’ other redshirt freshman starter at offensive tackle last year, as the 6’7, 360 lb monster just had too much potential to keep off the field. Pettus stuck out as a player badly in need of experience at times, but like Jayden Williams, should show the benefits of a full year’s worth of experience.
- Ole Miss also returns several veteran backups, including Cedric Melton and Cedrick Nicely, and redshirt freshmen Cam East and Preston Cushman.
The Rebels didn’t make a splash acquisition along the offensive line from the portal, but did add two versatile veterans and a blue chip freshman from the high school ranks.
- Victor Curne, a senior transfer from the University of Washington, started 16 games at right tackle for the Huskies. He started at left tackle during Spring ball for the Rebs, as Jayden Williams had a cleanup surgery on one of his shoulders. Curne continues to take some first team reps at left tackle, while also filling in at both guard spots. He’s likely to be the first offensive lineman off the bench in most situations.
- Quincy McGee transferred in from UAB, where he emerged as a standout starter in 2022. He also played two seasons at MGCCC. McGee has pushed Eli Acker some at guard, and could also spell Jeremy James at right guard as needed.
- A four-star 2023 recruit who enrolled early for Spring ball, Brycen Sanders has served as the Rebels’ second team center while Caleb Warren recovered from injury. With the veteran Ole Miss offensive line looking pretty healthy headed into the season, Sanders looks like a redshirt candidate, but if things go sideways, he proved that he could contribute if needed.
- Will the year-over-year improvements from Williams, Pettus, and Warren be enough to create a solid overall unit? If the line can keep Jaxson Dart’s jersey clean, the potential of the Ole Miss offense gets truly scary.
- Will John Garrison use his deep bench of veterans to keep the starters fresh, or will we see Ole Miss roll with the same five guys over and over again?
RCR Hot Taeks:
- I’m predicting Ole Miss will indeed improve in pass protection, with Jaxson Dart and Caleb Warren perhaps being better able to recognize where pressure will likely come from, and with John Garrison placing more emphasis on keeping Dart upright.
- However, with the loss of punishing run blocker Nick Broeker to the NFL, Ole Miss might lack some of the punch in the run game it had last year.
- With the Rebs’ deep roster of available blockers, and the team’s red zone struggles last year, look for some short yardage formations with six offensive linemen in order to get Curne and/or McGee on the field a little more regularly.
Overall offseason grade: B+
Let’s be real: the offensive line was not great in pass protection either of the past two years, relying on two quarterbacks who were supremely adept at avoiding pressure. I strongly believe that letting Jake Thornton walk was a strategic decision. So Lane Kiffin gets points for upgrading in the OL coach department. And with the bulk of the NIL war chest needed to restock on defense, Ole Miss made two quality depth additions from the portal in Curne and McGee. With just one highly thought-of high school signee, Ole Miss will be pressured to restock with higher-quality signees down the road.