OXFORD • Ole Miss coach Matt Luke made a splashy offensive coordinator hire in the off-season, but for Rich Rodriguez, success may rest with players who are accomplished yet inexperienced and largely unknown.
Anybody’s offense requires at least some degree of proficiency along the offensive line.
Now the Rebels – without their most experienced offensive lineman, Alex Givens, for an undetermined time – face a rebuild up front with three redshirt juniors.
Royce Newman, Bryce Mathews and Eli Johnson are beginning their fourth years in the program.
Johnson is already a graduate with a degree in criminal justice. Newman was an all-state basketball player, and Mathews’ father Jason Mathews played in the NFL with Indianapolis and Tennessee.
There are 38 game appearances between them – some of it mop-up time – with no starts.
“They realize all the talk that’s out there,” Ole Miss coach Matt Luke said.
Not all the talk is flattering.
While there’s a buzz around freshman names like running back Jerrion Ealy and wide receiver Jonathan Mingo, it’s more of a wait-and-see, fingers-crossed vibe for the offensive line.
In a college football culture that often looks to recruiting for the “next big thing” or a quick fix players who are three seasons in and haven’t earned starting jobs are a bit of an anomaly.
It’s enough to make these offensive line guys a little defensive.
“We were recruited here for a reason,” Mathews says. “I have a lot of belief in this group of guys. We’ll be able to go out and prove our worth.”
Luke is looking hard for multiple guys among six available freshman signees to blossom and provide depth.
The most locked-in starters for Aug. 31 at Memphis are Mathews at left tackle, Newman at left guard and Johnson at center along with third-year sophomore Ben Brown at right guard. If Givens is unavailable for Memphis, Brown will be the lone returning starter in the group.
Mathews and Newman were four-star recruits themselves back in the day. Mathews was ranked among the nation’s top 250 prospects by two recruiting services. Johnson while playing at Lafayette was ranked the fourth-best center in the country by 247Sports.com.
Each of them, however, have been on the slow boat to the first team as they’ve played behind players with equal or greater recruiting notoriety or someone just effective and entrenched as a starter.
“I think it definitely makes you enjoy the experience a little more, having to go two or three years before really getting a chance to play,” Johnson said. “I’m very, very excited about the opportunity that I have this fall.”
Johnson’s path also includes surgeries after an ACL tear and a wrist injury. He’s healthy now.
To a man the redshirt juniors praise those who came before them – left tackle Greg Little, left guard Javon Patterson and center Sean Rawlings – as excellent teachers and friends.
They’re not concerned about limited chances to see game speed.
“We’ve had some snaps. We’ve practiced hard and against good competition,” Newman said. “We played in almost every game, and we got game reps with the live atmosphere. We’re not going in empty-handed with no plays at all.”