After the first day of spring practice, Hugh Freeze was asked which position group he wanted to shore up over the next month and a half. The Ole Miss coach didn’t think twice.
“We start with offensive line as always,” Freeze said. “It seems like that’s probably constantly going to be a question mark from year to year. If you look nationally, that is probably the hardest position to [fill]. If you are good at that spot, you’ve got a really good chance – if you’re good there and have a good quarterback.”
“It’s a bit different [for us]. We lost six guys. That is a lot out of an offensive line room to lose.”
Six offensive linemen gone, including all five starters from the Sugar Bowl victory over Oklahoma State. Among that group is Ole Miss left tackle Laremy Tunsil. The former five-star recruit and potential No. 1 draft pick played in 28 games over the past three seasons and allowed just two sacks.
Tunsil sat out the first seven games in 2015 due to suspension, but when he returned to the lineup, the Rebels averaged 514 yards per game and over 200 yards per game on the ground.
However, even with all the turnover, there are some positive signs coming from the offensive line group through the first couple weeks of spring practice.
“The chemistry is looking good so far,” Ole Miss offensive lineman Jordan Sims told ESPN.com. “Everybody likes everyone, and we just feed off each other. It’s not necessarily one guy doing everything.
“We had guys like Laremy Tunsil, a first-round draft pick and an awesome player, but one thing Coach [Matt] Luke stresses to us is that we have a chance to be a better offensive line because of the chemistry that we can have. Everybody is young, so we’ll be able to play with each other for the next couple years.”
That’s right. You heard Sims correctly. He believes this current group, which has maybe 20 starts between them, has a chance to be better than last year’s offensive line featuring Tunsil.
Per Sims, Ole Miss has primarily gone with a starting five of (from left to right) Alex Givens, Javon Patterson, Sean Rawlings, Sims and Jeremy Liggins throughout the spring, though there has been some experimenting with different players at different positions.
Of those five, only Patterson, Rawlings and Sims have any real experience, and as a result, those three have helped the fill the void in terms of leadership.
“As young players, we provided depth last year, and we kind of understand the game and know what the game speed is like,” Sims said. “We can take some of that knowledge and pass it down to the younger players that haven’t really played much.”
Ole Miss will get some much-needed help by the time fall camps arrives with the expected returns of Rod Taylor and Robert Conyers from injury. Plus, five-star offensive tackle Greg Little – the No. 2 overall player in the ESPN 300 – is scheduled to arrive this summer and he’s already drawn comparisons to Tunsil coming out of high school.
“I watched Greg play a live game during our evaluation period and his feet are really good,” Freeze said this past signing day. “Both coming out of high school probably need to be stronger in the upper body, but the comparison is close. I don’t know. Laremy may have been a little ahead, but it’s hard to tell.
"Greg is really talented and kind of changes personalities on the football field, in a good way.”
Despite the inexperience up front, the Rebels do have talent. The key will be consistency, which means staying healthy and staying on the fields – something this unit has struggled with ever since Freeze got to Ole Miss.
If they can do that, the offensive line can go from a question mark to a strength.