NCF Nation: Bradley Sowell

If new Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze is going to get his spread offense off the ground in Oxford, he's going to have to see a lot of positive changes from his offensive line.

What entered the spring as the Rebels' most experienced unit left as arguably its weakest, as it struggled to transition to Freeze's new offense.

"The tempo of which we want to do it with caused some problems and we still have a ways to go in that adjustment period," Freeze said of his offensive line Tuesday.

[+] EnlargeRandall Mackey
AP Photo/Rogelio V. SolisRandall Mackey was a bright spot this spring for Ole Miss, contributing at quarterback, running back and as a receiver.
Ole Miss lost potential first-round pick Bobby Massie and three-year starter Bradley Sowell before spring, but watched as its returning starters struggled throughout the 15 spring practices.

Guard Matt Hall, who started 11 games at right guard last season, was missing for the first part of the spring before he eventually left the team. Fellow guard Patrick Junen, who started six games at left guard, ran with the first team at times, but continued to struggle picking up Freeze's offense throughout spring.

Rising senior A.J. Hawkins, who played in and started five games at center last year, took reps at guard, while rising junior center Evan Swindall (seven starts) was able to stay at his past position and might have been the Rebels' most consistent lineman.

Rising sophomore Aaron Morris (five starts) shined at times, while the tackle spots were filled by redshirt junior Emmanuel McCray, who missed all of last season but played in 12 games in 2010, and junior college transfer Pierce Burton.

There were bright spots here and there, but overall, Ole Miss' offensive line didn't excel. There are a lot of career games along the front five, but it'll take more than experience to get this group going before the season starts.

While Freeze was down on his offensive line, he was impressed by a couple of skill players this spring. Freeze said rising junior wide receiver Ja-Mes Logan had "the most consistent spring at wide receiver." Logan only caught 20 passes for 274 yards and zero touchdowns last season, but he's a big body who the staff hopes can be used as a deep threat in this offense.

He caught three passes for 88 yards and two touchdowns in the spring game.

Freeze was also pleased with how Randall Mackey performed, even with all the moving around he did. After being a starting quarterback for the Rebels last season, Mackey moved to wide receiver. As one of Ole Miss' best pure athletes, he took reps in the slot, as a wildcat quarterback and as a running back.

In Ole Miss' spring game, Mackey completed two passes -- both touchdowns -- for 44 yards, caught a pass for 4 yards, and carried the ball twice for 16 yards.

"He's a talented kid," Freeze said, "and I expect him to give us an added boost to the offense from playing all the many positions that he'll play."

Breaking down the SEC's top 25 players

August, 29, 2011
8/29/11
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The countdown of the SEC's top 25 players for the 2011 season is in the books, and I'm sure nobody has any beefs with our list.

Actually, I have a few myself, and I put the list together along with my SEC blogging mate Edward Aschoff.

When you have to keep it to 25 players in a league like the SEC, you're always going to second-guess yourself.

We certainly wouldn't have included Tennessee safety Janzen Jackson at No. 25 had we known he would squander his last chance and get booted for continuing substance abuse issues.

And who knew Arkansas' Knile Davis would go down with a fractured ankle in the preseason? But I absolutely stand by our decision to pick him in the top 5, and I'm just as convinced that he deserved to remain on the list even though he's not going to be playing this season. Davis is a class act in every sense of the word and a terrific football player.

As I survey the list, I admit to wincing a bit at not seeing more LSU players included. The Tigers are loaded with talent, but much of it is concentrated in the freshman and sophomore classes. If we did a top 50, LSU would probably be right there at the top.

The other thing is that we genuinely tried to pick the 25 players we felt would have the best seasons in 2011 without trying to make sure every team was accounted for or that a team had more players on the list simply because it was picked high in the preseason polls.

The No. 1 choice was tough, but we went with Alshon Jeffery for a number of reasons.

First, there's no denying his production. The bigger the game, the better he played last season, and he's only going to be more polished as a receiver. You're talking about a guy who's 6-4 and weighs 230 pounds and has the leaping ability to go up and get passes, the hands to catch passes with people hanging onto him, and the strength to out-wrestle defenders for passes you simply don't see many receivers catching.

He's not going to wow anybody with his speed (or his physique), but how many times do you see him being run down when he breaks into the clear?

Simply, Jeffery's a football player, and he's poised for a monster junior season.

Before getting into the 10 players who just missed the cut, here's a breakdown of the list:

BY TEAM

Alabama: 5
Arkansas: 5
South Carolina: 4
Georgia: 3
Tennessee: 2
Auburn: 1
Florida: 1
Kentucky: 1
LSU: 1
Mississippi State: 1
Vanderbilt: 1

BY POSITION

RB: 4
LB: 4
WR: 3
DT: 3
CB: 3
OL: 2
DE: 2
S: 2
QB: 1
TE: 1

Here are the 10 players (could have been 20) who just missed the cut. They're listed alphabetically:

LSU LB Ryan Baker: The Tigers are oozing with talent on defense, and Baker will be one of their leaders. He had seven sacks last season and played the first month with his mouth wired shut due to a broken jaw.

Ole Miss RB Brandon Bolden: He's got a chance to rush for 1,000 yards and also catch 30 passes. He just missed joining the 1,000-yard/30-catch club last season by 24 rushing yards.

Georgia CB Brandon Boykin: One of the SEC's top cover cornerbacks, Boykin is also one of the most dangerous return specialists in the league. Maybe we see him on offense this season, too.

Florida DE Sharrif Floyd: The Gators are going to play him at end because of his ability to both rush the passer and stop the run.

Georgia C Ben Jones: A stalwart in the middle of that Georgia offensive line, Jones ranks among the best centers in college football.

Vanderbilt LB Chris Marve: Everywhere you look in the SEC, there are great linebackers. Marve will be gunning for his fourth straight season of 80 or more tackles.

Ole Miss OT Bradley Sowell: The Rebels have two future NFL offensive tackles on their roster, and the 6-7, 315-pound Sowell is primed for a big senior season.

LSU RB Spencer Ware: The Tigers didn't really unveil Ware until the Cotton Bowl last season. He'll be the centerpiece of their offense in 2011.

Kentucky OG Larry Warford: Not many guys the size of the 6-3, 336-pound Warford can move the way he can. He's exactly what you're looking for at guard.

Arkansas QB Tyler Wilson: He gained a lot of mileage by the way he played against Auburn in relief a year ago. Don't be surprised if he leads the SEC in touchdown passes this season.
The big uglies up front on the offensive side are our focus today. There are some quality veterans out there, but teams all across the league are looking to replace some quality linemen in the trenches.

Here's how we see the league stacking up:

[+] EnlargeBarrett Jones
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireBarrett Jones has been one of the mainstays of Alabama's offensive line the past two seasons.
1. Alabama: Four of Alabama’s five linemen from a year ago return, making this one of the team’s strongest units. The returners have combined for more than 70 starts at Alabama. Barrett Jones is the star of the show. The junior has been the Tide’s starting right guard each of the past two seasons, but took reps at left tackle and could be asked to move. William Vlachos is back at center and could be the best at his position in the league. Fellow starters D.J. Flucker and Chance Warmack are back and took reps at left tackle this spring.

2. Ole Miss: The Rebels’ offense isn’t getting much respect this offseason, but its offensive line returns All-SEC candidates in tackles Bradley Sowell and Bobby Massie. Seven of Ole Miss’ linemen started two or more games each on the offensive line in 2010. Last season, the Rebels were first in the league in sacks allowed, giving up just 14. Alex Washington should stay at left guard after starting eight games there and A.J. Hawkins will likely get the nod at center after playing eight games there as well. Arkansas transfer Matt Hall will compete for time at center.

3. LSU: Joseph Barksdale might be gone, but the Tigers have a very talented group of linemen returning. Tackle Alex Hurst seems primed to be a star in the league and senior Josh Dworaczky is arguably the Tigers’ top lineman with 25 career starts. Patrick Lonergan is solid at center, while T-Bob Hebert is valuable at both center and guard. Sophomore Chris Faulk has the tough assignment of replacing Barksdale, but made quite the impression on his coaches this spring.

4. Kentucky: The Wildcats return four starters on their line. Right guard Larry Warford headlines the group after gaining second-team All-SEC honors a year ago. Kentucky also returns two-year starter Stuart Hines at left guard and Matt Smith at center, who was solid in his first year there. Left tackle Chandler Burden missed spring practice, but is expected back by fall practice. Finding a suitable right tackle is the next step for Kentucky.

5. Tennessee: This group could be one of the most impressive units for the Volunteers this season. It’s deeper and more experienced in Derek Dooley’s second year and he was very pleased with its performance this spring. Junior Dallas Thomas is solid at left tackle, and sophomore Ja’Wuan James really came on strong in his first year and is one of the top linemen in the SEC. James Stone also returns at center. The surprise of the group was true freshman Marcus Jackson, who held down the left guard spot for most of the spring.

6. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs must replace All-American left tackle Derek Sherrod, but most of the line is somewhat on point. Center Quentin Saulsberry will anchor the line and is versatile enough to play just about every position on the line. Left guard Gabe Jackson and right tackle Addison Lawrence return and the Bulldogs will have junior Tobias Smith lining up at right guard. Blaine Clausell and James Carmon, who moved from defensive tackle, will compete at left tackle.

7. Georgia: This was supposed to be one of the strongest offensive line units in the league, but the Bulldogs lost tackle Trinton Sturdivant to a season-ending knee injury this spring and fellow tackle A.J. Harmon transferred. Georgia’s most-reliable options are Cordy Glenn, who moved from guard to left tackle and Ben Jones at center. Kenarious Gates is at left guard, but he’s athletic enough to play tackle if needed. Former defensive lineman Justin Anderson will start off at right tackle. Right guard is the next area of business and the depth all around is a problem.

8. South Carolina: The Gamecocks have questions here, but there is talent across the line. Rokevious Watkins is one of the most talented guards in the league and he’ll be assisted by returning starter at center T.J. Johnson. Senior Kyle Nunn has made strides at left tackle and redshirt freshman A.J. Cann took over duties at left guard this spring. Still, the younger linemen will be counted on to contribute this fall.

9. Arkansas: The Razorbacks must replace three starters on the offensive line. Center Travis Swanson and left guard Alvin Bailey are the only returning starters. Just a sophomore, Bailey impressed his coaches last season and will be one of the top linemen in the league this fall. After that, the Hogs will have to turn to youth for help. True freshman Brey Cook could be thrust into the starting role at right tackle, while sophomore Anthony Oden could get the job at left tackle.

10. Florida: Florida’s offensive line struggled throughout the 2010 season -- and that was with a senior-laden group. This fall, the Gators will start over with a ton of inexperience. Right guard Jon Halapio and right tackle Xavier Nixon are the only returning starters. Halapio struggled at times last season and Nixon battled injuries. Florida’s line spent most of the spring in the infirmary, so little is known about the overall talent. Freshman Chaz Green left spring as the starter at left tackle, Jonotthan Harrison will battle former Notre Dame lineman Dan Wenger at center. He transferred in after spring, but has health concerns.

11. Auburn: The Tigers will go from having one of the top offensive line groups in the country to having a major work in progress in 2011. Senior Brandon Mosley is the lone returning starter, and while he was solid on Auburn’s line last season, he came from junior college as a defensive end/tight end. The good news is that tackle A.J. Greene should be fine this fall after sustaining a season-ending leg injury last year. The rest of Auburn’s linemen are very young and inexperienced. Don’t expect many redshirts from this group.

12. Vanderbilt: The Commodores might return all five starters, but this unit had trouble keeping things together last year. The offense needs this group to improve mightily. Wesley Johnson is Vanderbilt’s best option, despite only being a sophomore at left tackle. There will be size on the right side, with 300-plus pounders Kyle Fischer and Ryan Seymour over there. Simply put, this unit has the experience, but it requires a lot of improvement.

The SEC's most improved players in 2010

January, 27, 2011
1/27/11
12:29
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We’re not going to completely turn the page on the 2010 season.

I’ve spent much of this week compiling the 10 players that I thought were the most improved players in the SEC this past season.

We’ll name it the All-Nick Fairley Team, which ought to tell you who the captain of the team is.

Here goes:

1. Auburn junior defensive tackle Nick Fairley: He went from two starts and 3.5 tackles for loss as a sophomore to the Lombardi Award winner and most dominant interior defensive lineman in college football as a junior. He led the SEC with 24 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks and could end up being the No. 1 pick overall in April’s NFL draft.

[+] EnlargeArkansas running back Knile Davis
AP Photo/Danny JohnstonKnile Davis scored 14 touchdowns last season.
2. Arkansas sophomore running back Knile Davis: He had trouble overcoming injuries and a crowded Arkansas running back stable earlier in his career. But after rushing for only 163 yards as a freshman, Davis exploded this season to lead all SEC running backs with 1,322 yards.

3. Mississippi State junior quarterback Chris Relf: He got better all season, but saved his best game for the Gator Bowl when he passed for three touchdowns and ran for one in the 52-14 rout of Michigan. Relf finished with 13 touchdown passes and only six interceptions and was second on the team in rushing with 713 yards to go along with five more touchdowns.

4. Alabama sophomore safety Robert Lester: After playing mostly on special teams as a redshirt freshman, Lester was presented with a huge opportunity this season with the Crimson Tide losing just about everybody from their secondary on the 2009 national championship team. He responded by tying for second nationally with eight interceptions.

5. Ole Miss junior offensive tackle Bradley Sowell: Remember Sowell trying to block South Carolina’s Eric Norwood early during the 2009 season? It was a mismatch, but Sowell came back strong later that season and even stronger this season, settling into his left tackle spot and earning second-team All-SEC honors from the Associated Press.

6. LSU junior running back Stevan Ridley: What Ridley really needed was a chance, and he got one this season. He finished with 1,147 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns and was the heart and soul of the LSU offense. That’s after combining for 57 carries and 272 yards in his first two seasons. Ridley entered his name in the NFL draft following the season.

7. Kentucky senior quarterback Mike Hartline: The suspension for the bowl game was unfortunate, but it doesn’t diminish what was a brilliant senior season for Hartline. He’d been plagued by inconsistency throughout much of his career and had the knee injury as a junior, but passed for 3,178 yards and 23 touchdowns while completing 66.2 percent of his passes this season.

8. Kentucky senior receiver Chris Matthews: In his first season at Kentucky after coming over from junior college, Matthews showed flashes. But this season, he emerged as one of the most productive receivers in the league. He was second only to South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffery with six touchdown catches against SEC competition.

9. Tennessee sophomore cornerback Prentiss Waggner: He moved from safety to cornerback midway through the season, developing into one of the best ball hawks in the league. Waggner intercepted five passes, returning three for touchdowns, on his way to second-team, All-SEC honors by the Associated Press. That’s after finishing with six total tackles and no interceptions as a redshirt freshman.

10. Arkansas senior linebacker Anthony Leon: A position change made a world of difference for Leon, who seemed a step slow at safety, but was a disruptive force at outside linebacker. He was one of the chief reasons the Hogs improved so much this season on defense and finished second on the team with 12.5 tackles for loss.

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low


Ole Miss might have been vastly overrated and vastly unproven, but that doesn’t mean the season is over for the Rebels.

Rather, it’s just beginning.

As disappointing as the 16-10 loss to South Carolina was Thursday, Ole Miss’ season will be defined by what it does from here and whether the Rebels are a player in the Western Division race come November.
 
 Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
 Jevan Snead and the Ole Miss offense have yet to find their groove this season.


Junior quarterback Jevan Snead points out, and rightly so, that it’s not how you start, but how you finish.

Snead’s slow start has mirrored that of the Rebels, which isn’t a coincidence. He and this offense have yet to find a rhythm.

Granted, the month of September was a weird one for the Rebels with only one Saturday game and then the short week leading up to the South Carolina game, but there are no more excuses now.

Either the Rebels are legit, or they’re not.

“If you’ll remember, we kind of started off slow last year,” said Snead, who was 7-of-21 in the loss to the Gamecocks. “I was hoping to get into a rhythm quicker this year, but obviously haven’t been able to do that. That’s one of the things we’re trying to correct. We’re trying to get into a rhythm, not only on offense, but as a team.

“We really need to start playing well in all phases of the game. Last week, our defense did an excellent job. I feel like as an offense, we let them down. We’re just trying to get to where we’re playing as one.”

Pass protection, especially against South Carolina, has been a problem. Left tackle Bradley Sowell struggled in that game. But Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt also said that Snead has to quit seeing “ghosts” and trust in his teammates.

“We want his eyes downfield like he did last year,” Nutt said. “Just play the game like he is capable of playing. When he does that, we move the football.”

Ole Miss was missing starting tight end Gerald Harris (hamstring) in the South Carolina game. He might be back for the Vanderbilt game this Saturday, but fullback Andy Hartmann (knee) will miss at least one more week.

It’s pretty clear that the Rebels also miss Mike Wallace’s downfield speed in the passing game, not to mention All-SEC left tackle Michael Oher.

In retrospect, this team had more holes than probably any of us realized back in August.

Tyrone Nix’s defense has held up just fine and gave the Rebels every chance to win in Columbia.

The onus is on Snead and the offense now if Ole Miss is going to live up to the hype.

And before anybody mentions anything about Alabama coming to Oxford in two weeks, keep in mind that Ole Miss lost at home last season to Vanderbilt.

“We've got 22 good seniors that really want to win,” Nutt said. “They've tasted winning. They understand it, and they know how tough winning is. It's about getting back up. You got knocked down, so you get back up.

“What's critical is that you don't let the bubble burst.”

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