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Examining Ole Miss’ offensive line struggles and where to look for improvement

Ole Miss will not beat Arkansas on Saturday evening if it receives a similar performance from the offensive line as it did in a 15-10 loss to Memphis at the Liberty Bowl last weekend.

Matt Luke knows this, as do offensive line coach Jack Bicknell and senior right tackle Alex Givens. The Rebels were manhandled up front, particularly on the left side of the line, by the Tigers defensive front. Perhaps no single play encapsulated the fragility than the overload blitz Memphis dialed up late in the fourth quarter. It resulted in Matt Corral getting sacked for a safety. Ole Miss never gained possession again.

Senior left tackle Michael Howard, playing his first real snaps as an SEC offensive lineman after three years of struggling to keep weight on his frame, graded out at a 16 on a 100 point scale in pass blocking, according to Pro Football Focus.

Left tackle is far from the line’s only issue, but it may be the most pressing one. Luke hinted at the arrival of reinforcements at his weekly Monday press conference when he guaranteed that freshman left tackle Nick Broeker would play against Arkansas. Six guys took snaps against Memphis. The five starters: Givens, Howard, Ben Brown, Eli Johnson and Royce Newman. Four of the five played all 53 snaps with Givens playing 37 and Bryce Mathews filing in the remaining 16 in place of Givens, who was limited in the contest due to a back procedure he endured on July 18.

“We’re going to play a few more guys,” Luke said. “(Broeker) will see some playing time this week. We can get better on that side of the ball in a hurry.”

Luke had better hope that’s the case as his team prepares for a lowly Arkansas team that slipped by with a 20-13 win over FCS foe Portland State in week one. For reference, Portland State won four games last season. The Razorbacks boast three seniors on the defensive line. Junior defensive end Dorian Gerald will not play and is out for the season with a strained artery in his neck.

Ole Miss’ issues upfront are layered. It doesn’t have the luxury of depth. The program lost veterans Sean Rawlings, Jordan Sims, Greg Little and Javon Patterson from a year ago. That’s 127 career starts and over 2,300 hundred snaps lost from last season alone. This offseason, the program ushered in seven true freshmen. None went through spring football and the Rebels are now turning to a couple of them to formulate depth. It starts with Broeker but likely won’t end there. Tackle Jeremy James cracked the two-deep rotation during camp and Bryce Ramsey is listed as listed the second team center.

“There are really seven guys we are looking at right now and we are looking for an eighth guy to step up,” Bicknell said. “Until they do, we are going to find the best combination of playing those guys and use it.”

The combinations include Ramsey moving to guard with Brown at center. Ramsey plays tackle some too. Mathews can play guard and tackle. Newman can move outside to tackle if needed.

Expecting true freshmen to be physically ready to contribute is a gamble with long odds — let alone being mentally prepared. But it’s Ole Miss’ reality until guys like junior guard Chandler Tuitt and redshirt freshman Jalen Cunningham show enough consistency for Bicknell and Luke to feel comfortable playing them in games.

We aren’t going to play someone unless we totally trust them,” Bicknell said.

Tuitt and Cunningham have yet to earn that trust.

“We’ve seen them do it,” Luke echoed. “It’s just seeing them do it on a consistent basis.”

But the starting five has limited experience, which is a problem in its own right and one that glared last Saturday. Givens is the most experienced player on the roster. Brown started all 12 games last season as a redshirt freshman, his first full dosage of SEC football. Johnson entered this year having participated in four games. He missed the 2017 season with a torn ACL. Howard’s only game experience as a lineman came in goal-line packages in two SEC contests last year. Newman played in all 12 games as a reserve last year.

Ole Miss played its season opener like a team that lost four contributors and over 100 starts on the offensive line. The unit was mauled so violently in the first two quarters the Rebels entered the locker room at halftime with 42 yards of total offense. That can’t be placed solely on the offensive line of course, but the line was a primary factor in the result.

“I think it was a good learning experience for the guys who have not played much,” Bicknell said. “Hopefully we will have a much better outing this weekend.”

There were slivers of evidence to suggest the line will improve. It got better in the second half. The Rebels averaged 4.2 yards per rush and moved the football in three of their four second-half possessions. Givens will be closer to 100 percent this week and the other five guys will be a game more experienced. That’s pointing out the obvious, but it’s also noteworthy for a group in which inexperience is hard to find, one that learned a tough lesson on a sweltering August afternoon.

“We have the guys to do it,” Givens today. “We are going to get it together and be good. We just have to focus in. We have a young team and we grew up last game. This next game is huge to show our fans we really did grow up.”

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