JACKSON, Miss. | Mississippi players and their fans are abuzz about numbers these days: Look at how many starters the Rebels return. Surely, they'll be ranked next season. Top 10? Top 5?
The number that really matters for Ole Miss, though, is three. That's now many starting offensive linemen the Rebels must replace — including All-American left tackle Michael Oher — before they can begin thinking about making a mark in the Southeastern Conference and attaining BCS relevance.
"Really, you got about two guys, three guys at the most, who have experience at all," coach Houston Nutt said. "So that just concerns you."
The Wild Rebels are pretty tame without great play from the offensive line. Jevan Snead can forget about high expectations for his junior season without someone covering his backside. And who cares how many great running backs you have if they're corralled in the backfield?
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The Rebels lost starting guards Darryl Harris and Maurice Miller along with Oher from a unit that helped Ole Miss earn a Cotton Bowl berth and No. 14 final ranking. That's more than 1,000 pounds of protection.
Gargantuan right tackle John Jerry and center Daverin Geralds are the only regulars back. But top reserve and part-time starter Reid Neely gives offensive line coach Mark Markuson a quick start to rebuilding the group.
From there, though, things get sketchy as the Rebels prepare to play their spring game Saturday. Left tackle Bradley Sowell and guard Rishaw Johnson are penciled in at the other open slots and have played well enough that Markuson expects to use ink to record their names at the top of the depth chart.
"We still need that August practice and the summer workouts, but I'm fairly confident these five guys plus Gerald Harris at tight end will give us a solid nucleus of being a pretty decent front," Markuson said. "Our problem is finding the depth that we need in case some of our guys get hurt. Who's the next guy in? We're decent at the inside positions, we're just not as deep at the tackle. There might be some freshman that come in that we'll have to check out."
Most of the attention has been focused on Sowell, a redshirt freshman who played a bit last season but will be expected to replace Oher, a likely first-round pick in the April 25 NFL draft.
At 6-foot-7 and 310 pounds, he's athletic and has been taking instruction from Markuson well. But can he replace one of the SEC's top players of the last four years? Oher started all but one game in his career and rarely got beat, even against the conference's never-ending stream of talented rush ends.
"He has gotten a lot better," Markuson said of Sowell. "We've been on him about being physical. Now the thing about Brad, when Brad was in high school, he was a big tubby. He was like 350, 360. Ole Miss took him and he just dropped the weight. Now that's a lot of discipline. The guy looks like a left tackle in the SEC. He just needs game and to get stronger, and just keep working. We feel good about him."
Johnson, at 6-4 and 295 pounds, also has the size and athleticism needed to excel.
There might be help on the way if they struggle, though.
Nutt signed a handful of large offensive lineman, which were scarce when he took over from Ed Orgeron last year. The first to get a look will be Bobbie Massie, the 6-7, 345-pound prep school standout. Coaches are also anticipating the arrival of Emmanuel McCray and Michael Brown.
And of course, by preseason practice, there may be other candidates.
"It just remains to be seen," Markuson said. "The guys you don't count on or think won't be a factor are the guys that come on and you say, 'Wow, look what this kid's doing.' You've got to give them all a chance and we've got a lot of time before we come back in August to practice."
Markuson's confident things will work out. And the players have picked up on that vibe.
"Coach Marksuon, he's been great with the guys, just having patience, just being a great coach," Geralds said. "And not just on the field, but off it and everything. We know he's a guy we can go and talk to. Markuson, he's just done a great job with us. Me and the rest of the offensive line, we just love him."