They hear the chatter and read the stories and blog posts. They hear it on social media, from Twitter to Facebook. Expectations are high in year three under head coach Hugh Freeze. But a team is only as strong as its weakest unit.
And the offensive line has no shortage of question marks.
“People say we’re the weak link,” Ole Miss offensive line and co-offensive coordinator Matt Luke said. “We have to take that to heart and see what we can do to prove them wrong.”
“Criticism is criticism,” junior Justin Bell said. “If you’re going to listen to the positive, you have to listen to the negative as well. The negative criticism, we just take it and let it fuel us going into camp where we can prepare for the season and prove people wrong. We aren’t the question mark. Last season, we improved in all our numbers, especially the run game. We shouldn’t be a question mark. I think the question mark comes in with the depth. We won’t have a problem with that.”
Bell started every game last season, including seven games at right guard and six at left guard. The offensive line paved the way for the most total yards in school history and ranked 21st in the nation and fifth in the SEC in total offense.
However, gone are a number of veterans, including starters Evan Swindall (center), Pierce Burton (right tackle) and Jared Duke (guard). Austin Golson, a sophomore and the presumed starting right tackle, transferred to Auburn following spring practices.
On a positive note, former All-SEC guard Aaron Morris, who suffered a season-ending ACL injury in the team’s season-opening game against Vanderbilt a year ago, is back to full health. He’s started 20 games in his career.
“I’m feeling good. I’ve been doing a lot of rehab, got my knee back better and I got cleared a couple of weeks back,” Morris, a junior following a medical redshirt, said. “I’m feeling good. I think I’ve gotten better. I’m not going to say I’m 100 percent where I need to be, but I’m still working on it. I’ve got a little time left. I’ll be ready to go by the first game.”
Morris was named sophomore All-America honorable mention in 2012. A return to form for the junior would certainly be a boon for the front.
“I’m just going to go out head first and see what happens,” he said. “I always keep (the injury) in my mind, but I’m not going to let it stop me from doing stuff, like me being cautious. I’ve been doing drills and going through stuff, but it’s different when you’re going against somebody live in practice.”
“I believe he is the old Aaron,” Bell, a teammate of Morris’ since their high school days at Jackson (Miss.) Callaway, said. “He still wants to go out and attack the field like he did prior to the injury. That’s all you can ask out of a guy. He’s still an NFL prospect, and Aaron brings a lot of athleticism. He has the most experience up front of all of us. He’s played a lot of football here. He’s going to go out there and work his butt off for you and continue to improve.”
Bell will certainly have a say in how the offensive line ultimately shakes out, depending on which players emerge this month. He could start at guard or center.
“I’ll be preparing for whatever,” Bell said. “I want to be ready for every situation. I want to get my reps at center as well. But at the same time, I am the starter at right guard. That’s my focus right now.”
Junior Ben Still exited spring as the starter at center. Decorated freshman Rod Taylor, a former four-star prospect and also from Callaway, arrived in the summer and is expected to challenge for playing time at guard. Junior college transfer Fahn Cooper is considered the favorite at right tackle, though Freeze said Taylor will compete there as well.
“We’re OK inside depth-wise,” Freeze said. “On the edges, we’re very, very thin.”
Redshirt freshman Daronte Bouldin could play a role. With limited bodies, he almost has to.
Widely regarded as the strongest player on the team, Bouldin, at 6-foot-5, 327 pounds, believes it’s his time to step up in whatever capacity his team needs. He could play the role long held by Patrick Junen as the sixth offensive lineman, or he very well could earn a starting job. Opportunity abounds.
In 2013, Bouldin was rated a three-star prospect and the No. 49 offensive tackle in the nation by Scout.com, as well as the No. 6 prospect in Mississippi. He’s played guard exclusively at Ole Miss.
“This off-season, this spring, I tried to learn the plays as well as I can so that I can contribute to the offensive line,” he said. “It’s my time. I redshirted, so this is my year to step up. Whether I’m starting or not, I’m going to try to step up so I can contribute. I just want to play, be on the field. Wherever coach Luke puts me, I just want to learn to play it.”
At least Ole Miss doesn’t have to worry about Laremy Tunsil.
Tunsil, a preseason All-American and All-SEC first team pick, played in all 12 games last season with nine starts at left tackle. He allowed all of one sack in his debut season, en route to All-SEC second team honors.
“I believe at the end of fall camp, we’ll be a better unit as an offensive line.”
He was one of the first two true freshmen in school history to earn All-SEC honors, joining fellow sophomore Evan Engram, a tight end.
“We have a little bit of work to do,” he said. “But I believe at the end of fall camp, we’ll be a better unit as an offensive line.”
Though only a sophomore, Tunsil is already being looked to for leadership, and understandably so. He’s one of the few absolutes up front and the unit’s most recognizable and accomplished name.
“I feel like it’s my job, having all the success,” he said. “I feel I need to step up and show everybody what to do. I never was a vocal leader. I lead by my actions.”
His actions spoke plenty loud enough in off-season workouts. Strength and conditioning coach Paul Jackson said Tunsil was “from last summer to this summer, the most improved player in our strength and conditioning program,” which Tunsil attributed to his losing weight.
“I came in at 340,” said Tunsil, who is now listed at 6-foot-5, 305 pounds. “I just lost that weight and I just started running. I started running good when I lost that weight. I know I’m never going to be strong, so I focused on my feet, being an athlete. Movement and all that.”
The offensive line, with Tunsil as its anchor, has pieces to work with. The next four weeks, however, are key. Ole Miss opens the season against Boise State in the Chik-fil-A kickoff game Aug. 28.
And by then, they’ll have hopefully turned a perceived weakness into a strength.
“We always take it personal,” Morris said. “We read and see that the offensive line is being called the weakest spot. It makes us work harder to prove people wrong.”