It's cliché, but it's true: Southeastern Conference football games are won, by and large, in the trenches.
For Ole Miss offensive line coach Mike Markuson, that means he has his work cut out for him.
Markuson, who came to Ole Miss from Arkansas along with Houston Nutt, inherited an offensive line in Oxford that has some star power but precious little depth. Markuson inherited a group that had a reputation for being solid in pass protection but a bit soft in the running game. In other words, the Rebels' front wasn't particularly physical or intimidating. Markuson, known in coaching circles as one of the best technique teachers around, set out to change that.
"These guys have come a long way since January, obviously," Markuson said Monday afternoon. "They had a great summer and you can tell the difference in the way they're moving around out there. Overall they've really accepted us and they're working hard and they're a good bunch. We've just got to be more consistent, day in and day out, with how we do things in practice and such. I think that's true of any football team that's trying to get better."
Right guard Maurice Miller has dropped more than 30 pounds, as did backup offensive tackle Alex Washington. Center Daverin Geralds lost 10 pounds over the summer and is moving around better.
Depth remains an issue, though Markuson said a handful of players have really stepped up their game during fall camp and made the Rebels' offensive front a deeper group. A great example of that, Markuson said, is junior college transfer Brandon Green, who struggled during spring drills.
"Brandon wasn't a really highly recruited guy," Markuson said. "In fact, it was us and Memphis. We needed a center and his fundamentals were pretty pathetic, to be honest with you. But Brandon is such an energetic, hard-working, please-the-coach kind of guy that he does everything that's required, plus more. He won about every wind sprint this summer. I tell you: Effort will take you a long way when you're an offensive lineman."
Still, Markuson said he doesn't feel like Ole Miss really has a complete second unit yet.
"(Offensive tackle) Bradley Sowell has shown signs, but he has to continue to get better," Markuson said. "Tank Washington is showing signs. It's just that when you're the second team guy, and what I tell them all the time is, 'You've got to get over being the second-team guy and try to become a first-team guy, and the only way you do that is try to prove yourself in practice.' That's a hard stigma to overcome but it's a reality and it's truthful. A lot of times those second-team guys will fall into that mentality of, 'Well, I know I'm behind him and I'm behind him and he's never going to bring me up,' and that's not true because you're always one play away from going into a ballgame.
"Right now, we're trying to get eight or nine guys ready. I don't think we're two-deep ready for a game."
Markuson was forced to shuffle his starting line when left guard Reid Neely suffered an Achilles injury early in camp. Markuson shifted Darryl Harris to left guard, moved Miller from right tackle to right guard and re-inserted John Jerry[db] at right tackle. Immediately, the offensive front seemed to gel.
"Reid basically missed all of two-a-days," Markuson said. "We barely got the pads on and he was out. It's hard to really determine what he was going to do. He had a tremendous summer in the weight room. The five we're going with right now, they're a pretty good group and it's hard as a coach to say, 'OK, a guy gets hurt and when he comes back, you put him back in right away.' That's hard, because he hasn't had the reps.
"We just have to see what he does. These guys have worked together for 10 days since his injury and my job as the line coach here is to put the best five out on the field that gives us the best chance to win. Obviously, that's a decision I'm going to have to make. It's all predicated on his return and what he can do, but we need him back, that's for sure."
Another task that Markuson had in March and April was making All-SEC offensive tackle [db]Michael Oher understand that he had to be more physical and more dominant. Oher recently praised Markuson and strength coach Don Decker, saying that he had benefited greatly from the combination of their efforts.
"Mike has had a great camp," Markuson said. "You know, strength breeds confidence in an offensive lineman. There's no doubt about it. When you're stronger and you're playing against a strong guy and you can hold your own, there's something about that. You're playing a strong guy and you can handle him? OK, you're pretty strong too.
"It just gives you a lot more confidence when you're a stronger person. The athleticism is definitely there, but it's that grind of hitting a guy every play and being the most physical guy every play. That's what determines how great you can be as an offensive lineman, in my mind."
Jerry, meanwhile, has always been known as a tremendous run-blocker whose weight prevented him from being as athletic as he could be or needed to be in pass protection. Jerry missed almost all of spring drills with a health issue and spent quite a bit of the offseason focusing on his academics to remain eligible.
"John's doing good," Markuson said. "The guy's extremely gifted. We continue to harp on him about weight, getting his weight down and getting in great shape, but he's a guy that when he locks on you and he runs his feet and gets his hands inside you, he's a strong, strong person. He's also a pretty good fundamental technique guy. I wish I would have had him in the spring more, because he shows signs of having great technique. It's just a matter of doing it every snap."
That every-down consistency is the sermon that Markuson is preaching to Jerry, Oher and the rest of the line every day in practice.
"We're doing a good job," Markuson said. "We just have to have a great week of practice and be ready to play this game and see what we've got."
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