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Rawlings recalls rigors of playing offensive line as a freshman in the SEC

Sean Rawlings knows what Nick Broeker is about to endure.

Broeker is one of seven true freshmen offensive linemen Ole Miss welcomed to campus this summer as a part of its 2019 signing class. Broeker is in line to be the first of a couple of these seven newcomers forced into action this season on a thin and relatively inexperienced offensive line. A unit once anchored by veterans like Rawlings, Javon Patterson, Jordan Sims and Greg Little, will now turn to likes of Eli Johnson, Royce Newman and Bryce Mathews — guys who have been in the program a couple of years with varying degrees of service time — to protect redshirt freshman quarterback Matt Corral in newly-hired offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez’s scheme.

This offseason, Ole Miss was tasked with replacing the entire left side of the line, and Rawlings at center. On the surface, the personnel appears sturdy enough with veteran Alex Givens at right tackle, Brown at right guard and the aforementioned left side of upperclassmen. Where the concern resonates is with what is behind the starting five. The Rebels’ current second-string offensive line features two true freshmen in Broeker and Bryce Ramsey, and a redshirt freshman in Jalen Cunningham. Not to mention, fellow true freshman Jeremy James took a healthy number of reps with the second team at right tackle throughout camp.

Givens, the most experienced lineman on the roster, underwent a back procedure on July 18, missed all of fall camp and will be limited for the season opener at Memphis. Mathews is listed as Givens’ back up, meaning senior Michael Howard will start at left tackle. Howard, a journeyman of sorts, has fluctuated from lineman to tight end throughout his career because he’s struggled to keep weight on. He’s currently at 280 pounds and held that number throughout August. Broeker is listed as his back up and is the first of the seven freshmen in line to play significant snaps.

Playing offensive line in the Southeastern Conference isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s an incredibly arduous task for an 18-year-old kid, who at this time last year, was facing defensive ends that ran a 4.7 40-yard dash. The uptick in competition is extreme.

“Obviously, you can’t simulate a real game, but you can try to make practice as much like a real game as you can to put them in those tough situations when there are no coaches around,” head coach Matt Luke said. “Nick is a little bit more mature than most freshmen with his learning curve. I think he will be ready if he gets thrown out there.”

Rawlings knows what Luke is talking about. Rawlings arrived at Ole Miss in the summer of 2014 out of Madison Ridgeland Academy and was seen as a developmental project, as most linemen are coming out of high school. Rawlings’ was even more extreme. He was underweight and far from physically ready to play as he tried to shirk the stigma private school football players in the SEC often wear. He redshirted in 2014 and was not expected to see the field much in 2015 as he continued to develop his body.

Then the Laremy Tunsil loaner car fiasco oozed to the surface and everything changed.

“I was the benefactor of a bad situation,” Rawlings recalled. “I had no expectation. As a back-up, you are always preparing for the possibility to play. I got the opportunity to get thrown in the fire and learn a lot of stuff. I wasn’t expecting it all.”

Tunsil was suspended for the first seven games of the 2015 season. Ole Miss returned a loaded roster from a 2014 team that made an access bowl appearance and had lofty aspirations to win the SEC West. About a week before the season opener, Luke, then the offensive line coach under Hugh Freeze, informed Rawlings that he was likely going to start the first game at right tackle, and possibly many more after that.

In short, it was time for Rawlings to become a man, whether he was ready or not.

“It makes you grow up real fast,” Rawlings said. “You have no choice but to grow up and be on top of your stuff. As a 19-year-old, you get butterflies instantly. It’s like ‘this is really happening.’ But you have to get over that quick. You want to be able to perform and prepare the best you can.”

Rawlings had two tune-ups with Tennessee-Martin and Fresno State before he was fully immersed in the proverbial fire. His first SEC start came at Bryant-Denny Stadium against the Alabama Crimson Tide in a game the entire nation had its collective eye on. ESPN’s college College Gameday was on site, the SEC West title was potentially on the line and Rawlings was expected to perform.

How does one prepare to play offensive line in the SEC before they’re seen as ready? Using every resource at your disposal is a good start. Perhaps the easiest one to access is experienced teammates. Rawlings watched additional film every day after practice with then-junior Robert Conyers. He picked the brain of senior right guard Justin Bell.

“Seeing what they are seeing and what they may view differently. The older guys are more experienced. They are always going to be able to see more,” Rawlings said.

He played in 10 games that season and started all seven Tunsil sat out. There were highs, like beating Alabama that September night for the second year in a row, a victory that sent shockwaves across the college football landscape as the program ascended to heights it had not reached in over 50 years. There were lows, like being trounced two weeks later by Florida in a deafening environment in The Swamp. Rawlings struggled mightily in that game and remembered his confidence not necessarily eroding, but rising and falling violently.

“That shows how quickly it can turn,” Rawlings said. “It’s not that I lost my confidence, you just have to remember you are a freshman in the SEC going up against guys like this every week.”

The rest of Rawlings’ story is history. He anchored the Ole Miss offensive line for three more years. His versatility and experience were invaluable in his junior and senior seasons in particular. That’s really what this 2019 unit is missing. It isn’t a Laremy Tunsil or Greg Little, even though those guys would obviously be welcomed assets for the Rebels. It’s Sims and Rawlings this offensive line sorely misses — experienced players who can be plugged into multiple positions to generate pseudo-depth of sorts. Bicknell and Luke are trying to morph Mathews, who can play tackle and guard, into that type of versatile player. That, of course, will be a smoother transition if Howard and Broeker are competent at left tackle and Mathews’ services aren’t direly needed at a single position.

So, why is this so hard? Well, the answer is fairly obvious and layered. Generally, unless you are a Tunsil or Little type, guys aren’t physically ready for the grind that is the SEC out of high school. It’s also the speed of the game. The details matter more, too, as cliched as that sounds.

“The transition from high school to college, you just can’t even imagine the difference,” offensive line coach Jack Bicknell said. “It’s the same thing from the NFL to college. You have to understand what you are doing and understand the speed of things. Three inches off in high school, no big deal. Three inches off in the SEC, the quarterback gets sacked.”

Bicknell says this offseason has been more fun for him in some ways. He feels as if he is needed more as a coach. He’s been in a race against time as he tries to get these freshmen as ready as possible. There’s only so much you can do, however. At a certain point, the gap in physical development is what it is. It takes time to narrow, more time than a single offseason.

Rawlings recalls what a whirlwind his first fall camp was, and he went into it knowing he wasn’t going to play.

“The weight room is big,” Rawlings said. “It is just constantly being in that program, developing yourself physically and getting that to translate to the field. Getting into camp for the first time, the game moves a lot faster for you. Once you get experienced, it slows down. But that first camp is hectic, man.

“Being able to develop a vision on the field and then weight room and weight game are the biggest things for guys in developing.”

That goes hand-in-hand with being able to keep weight on your body frame, something the current starting left tackle has struggled with. Rawlings describes the remedy is simply pouncing on every opportunity to consume calories. It’s difficult in the sweltering Mississippi heat in camp and doesn’t let up throughout the season. Rawlings recalls losing as many as eight pounds of water weight in a single practice. Adding it back isn’t always easy.

Earlier on in camp, Howard was asked what he’s done differently to be able to maintain a serviceable weight. “Eat everything in sight,” he replied.

As Bicknell alluded to, technique and details are more critical than they were at the high school level. He labeled that as his most difficult adjustment to make in the short time he had to prepare.

“Technique on pass sets is huge,” Rawlings said. “In high school, your pass sets look like dog crap. Whether you want to admit it or not, they generally do. Moving back and gaining ground with that first step, but staying square at the same time to not allow an inside rush. You don’t really have defensive ends that are freak athletes like the SEC.”

Ole Miss is a day away from its season opener. Broeker, Ramsey and James are one day away from experiencing major college football for the first time. Whether they’re ready or not, they’re going to play. The Rebels need them. It’s as simple as that. It’s simply a product of the immense turnover on the offensive line from one season to another. Rawlings believes they can do it. But he won’t mince words about the degree of difficulty and the mentality it requires.

“It is a lifestyle, and a business lifestyle,” Rawlings said.” That is the approach you have to have. Going in and watching film after a two-hour practice may not be something you want to do as an 18-year-old kid, but if you want to be an asset to your team, you have to do it.”

PHOTO CREDIT: Joshua McCoy — Ole Miss Athletics 

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