(This is the third offering in a series of articles interviewing each assistant football coach about spring football.)
Offensive Line Coach Mike Markuson was not expecting miracles during spring training.
His goal was steady improvement and progress. He believes has gotten that from the Rebel forward wall.
"As the spring has progressed, our first group has come along. Obviously, there's more work we can do, but they are picking up on the basic concepts of what we want to do and how we want things blocked," Markuson noted. "We are also learning how to adjust to different defensive fronts. Coach (Tyrone) Nix and his staff have given us a lot of looks, which has been good for us. Defenses are not going to sit there and play base. They are going to move, they are going to stem, they are going to rock, so it's good to see those thing sin practice.
"We've made mistakes, but we correct every day and try to walk through everything in order to get it right. We have made progress. We have a way to go, but we have improved."
Markuson said the first team OL has done well, despite going most of spring with the services of junior John Jerry, who missed all but one day of spring.
"The first group is doing fairly well. We missed John – that is an obvious setback because he's a big, athletic body who can run and is very physical and strong. He reminds me so much of Sean Andrews. Big, fast and can run. We really miss his presence. He can bend and he understands the game, the adjustments and what you have to do. He's good in the film room. He's a main factor and he wasn't out there, but the rest made good gains on the first unit," Mike continued. "The second group guys have made some progress, but it's been more in spurts. Good improvement, but not great. That's the group that has to provide the depth we will need. Who is the next tackle? Guard? Center?
"To sit here and say we are two deep and solid would be dreaming. We are not. Right now, we are just looking for the next-best center and lineman that you could use in the game. The third group are try-hard guys who are working as hard as anyone and they are working hard and getting some reps too. We just have to continue to get better in the offseason and summer and go from there when August rolls around."
At right tackle, senior Maurice Miller has been holding down the top spot in Jerry's absence and he's also worked some at right guard, where he may end up when Jerry returns in August.
"Maurice has lost a lot of weight which he had to do to be a force in the SEC. We need him at 325 and he's at 340 right now, but he was 375 when we got here," said Markuson. "He does some things very well – you can tell he's played in this league, but he's got to keep getting better fundamentally. I could say that about every guy I've got – the fundamentals have to improve across the board."
Redshirt freshman Alex "Tank" Washington has made strides as well.
"Tank has lost 40 pounds and he got better in the last week of spring. He still has to learn to bend better. That is so important in OL play – to maintain a bend. Defensive linemen are in a bend and you have to block in a bend – you can't stand up," he said. "You have to keep your knees bent to get under DL. He struggles with that. With a good summer of lifting, he has potential and we need him to be a player for us."
Senior Darryl Harris, awaiting word on a sixth year ruling, but a participant in spring training, has manned the right guard slot most of spring.
"I think he's a very talented guy. I really do. He's been our most consistent guy this spring in terms of fundamentals and technique. He has a good bend in his knee and he plays with a good pad level," Mike continued. "I hope we have him because he's a factor for us out there. He's a fine football player."
Redshirt freshman Rishaw Johnson
backed up Harris in spring.
"Rishaw has all the ability in the world. He just makes too many fundamental and mental mistakes. He will come off the ball and strike you, he's athletic and he's a try-hard guy," Mike explained. "We just need to get him sounder with his assignments. He has struggled that way and that has affected his consistency. We have to get him way more consistent."
At center, junior Daverin Geralds
is the top guy coming out of spring training.
"He's a try-hard guy who is working really hard. We are trying to make him into a center and the process is ongoing. He's very strong, he's a very good listener and he wants to please," Markuson noted. "His snaps have gotten better and we haven't had too many bad snap exchanges and his shotgun snaps have been consistent. He's conscientious and is working hard. His fundamentals are not there yet, but he has a great attitude and work ethic. He wants to do it right and he'll get there. I see the physical skills necessary to be a good center. It's just a matter of learning the different angles and the different blocks he has to make as a center. The center is like the QB – if he's good he can direct everyone. I feel like, with time, he's going to get it, but he's got work to do between now and the season opener. He's doing a nice job so far."
JUCO transfer Brandon Green is next in line behind Geralds.
"Brandon is a great effort guy, but he's real raw in the fundamental part of the game. He was way behind fundamentally, but he's making up some ground and has a tremendous motor. We needed another center and I'm glad we got him to help us out," Mike said.
At left guard, junior Reid Neely
leads the way.
"Reid has a big body, does a nice job with leverage and has long arms. He's awfully strong. Reid is feeling his way through too. You can tell he's played the game and he does some things really well, but he has to get better fundamentally and he needs to be more physical," Markuson added. "He needs to use that big body to be more of a force in there. He's very strong and if he'll apply himself, he has the ability to be a big time lineman."
Working behind Neely are a pair of players who have been rotating fairly equally – junior Mark Jean-Louis and sophomore Don Mosley.
"Mark has to lose weight to be effective in the SEC. He has lost some, but we have to get him down in order for him to be a legitimate backup guy in this league," Markuson assessed. "Mosley is a talented kid athletically, but he has to be a more physical guy every down. He's got some ability – he's athletic, and he's changed his body some for the better too. I can see it in his footwork, but I need him to take it a step further and be more physical play-in and play-out."
At left tackle, senior Michael Oher, who bypassed going pro to return for his final collegiate season, is the main man.
"Michael is as talented athletically as I have been around. He reminds me so much of a kid we had at Arkansas, Tony Ugoh. Mike has to learn to be a physical guy every down. He has the tools to be dominant. He can get to the spot on a defender faster than anyone we have, but it's learning to play with his hands, play with a bend in his knee and getting in a good football position," Mike stated. "He has the athleticism, it's just a matter of doing it every play."
Behind Oher is redshirt freshman Bradley Sowell, who also drew good reviews from his mentor.
"I think Bradley is really progressing. You want to sign about five of him every year if you can. He has tremendous upside," said Markuson. "His pass blocking has gotten so much better this spring. He makes young mistakes, but he's got the size and leverage you want in a tackle. He's perfect and will be a very good player here in time."
Redshirt freshman Zack Brent, redshirt freshman Will Briscoe, junior Brent Smith, and senior Terry Freeman round out the candidates.
"Brent Smith is working at center and doing a nice job. He's real smart and a good student of the game," Markuson ended. "Zack is a program guy who wants to be a part of the team and works his tail off without complaining. You have to have guys like him. They bring a lot to the table and are important. He's a third-team guard right now but you never know what will happen if he keeps working hard. Same for Will Briscoe, a third-team tackle. A Mississippi kid and a kid who wants to be here and be a part of things. Terry is a third-team tackle who is in the same boat – tries hard and wants to be a part of the team.
"They are so important to the team overall, but some people don't recognize it. I credit them a lot for the success of any team. They will be the scout team offensive line and the better they are, the better the defensive line will be in games. I do not take them for granted and, like I said, you never know when one of them will blossom into a scholarship player or a quality backup or even starter. It happens and I appreciate every single one of them and try to coach them as hard as I coach all my guys."
Overall, the OL had as big an adjustment as any unit on the team because they are not only learning a new offense, they are learning new techniques at a highly demanding, technical position. They have given Markuson a good day's work, so to speak, and have gotten visibly better. Certainly, the insertion of Jerry back into the lineup will be important, as will the hoped-for clearance of Harris and a sixth year, but anyone watching spring training would have to call the OL's efforts successful.
Ole Miss Offensive Line Coach Mike Markuson says it's difficult to change what players have been doing to something new, but he liked the way the Rebel offensive linemen adapted in spring to his direction. Read about it inside.