OXFORD • A transitioning Ole Miss offensive line has some challenges ahead, says an ESPN analyst who knows the position well.
Cole Cubelic, who played center at Auburn from 1998-2000, is an analyst with the SEC Network and also part of “Three-Man Front,” a daily show produced by WJOX-FM in Birmingham.
The Rebels will try to replace the left side of their line plus the center largely with juniors Royce Newman, Bryce Mathews and Eli Johnson, who have been in the program for several seasons but have little starting experience.
Sheer numbers at the position mean the Rebels will be counting on true freshmen in key roles. There are seven offensive line signees, but none were able to enroll early and go through spring drills.
“I think we will, this season, have to count on them for depth,” Ole Miss coach Matt Luke said.
After a spring with the Rebels, new offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez said at least a couple of the true freshmen would have to be ready to provide depth “if not challenge to be a starter.”
That’s a red flag for Cubelic for a couple of reasons, one obvious, the other not so much.
“Where that concerns me a little bit is what kind of competition are you going to get? People often think that young depth just hurts when someone gets hurt, and you don’t have the same type of player coming in,” Cubelic said. “That’s not necessarily true. It allows for your starters not to perform as well as they need to, because they know nobody else is coming in.”
Newman and Mathews both played guard and tackle in the spring, while Johnson stayed at center where he is expected to replace Sean Rawlings.
There are 38 game appearances – 21 from Newman – between them but no starts. Johnson has battled back to good health from knee and wrist surgeries.
Ole Miss returns starters Ben Brown at guard and Alex Givens at tackle on the right side.
The freshmen will face several hurdles in rising to become contributors.
Speed of the game is something most players grapple with in moving from high school or junior college to major college football.
Cubelic said the quickness and athleticism of SEC defensive linemen makes that even more difficult. He singled out Texas A&M’s Justin Madubuike, Alabama’s Raekwon Davis, LSU’s Rashard Lawrence and others.
The league’s physicality and evolving limits on August practice also make development more difficult, Cubelic said.
The inexperience of the juniors is not necessarily a concern, Cubelic said.
“Any time you get guys two or three years into their careers that haven’t seen a lot of playing time you begin to worry about development. I don’t know if that’s the case with these young men,” he said. “Things being different can sometimes take guys that have been around and allow them to breathe new oxygen.
“I think the system change could help a few of those guys.”