• 68°

Experience, depth raising expectations for Ole Miss’ offensive line

If the offseason is any indication, expectations are high for Ole Miss’ offensive line.

Center Sean Rawlings was recently named to the Rimington Award watch list while Javon Patterson and Greg Little landed on the media’s preseason All-Southeastern Conference team Friday. Jordan Sims and Alex Givens are also returning, giving the Rebels all five starters up front back from last season.

Getting through the grind of an SEC season without any injuries in the trenches is a challenge if not unrealistic, but a combination of talent and depth built through head coach Hugh Freeze’s first five seasons has the Rebels believing a line that’s been a question mark in the past can morph into one of the best units in the SEC. Freeze took it one step further during his appearance at SEC Media Days last week.

“The depth chart offensive line-wise, I do believe that we’ve got a chance to have one of the better offensive lines in the country really,” Freeze said.

The group has combined for more than 40 starts. Rawlings, who began his career at tackle before settling in at his more natural position, is set to begin his second season as a full-time starter along with Patterson and Sims at left and right guard, respectively. Little, the nation’s top-ranked offensive lineman in the 2016 recruiting cycle, is entrenched as the starter at left tackle after starting five games as a freshman opposite Givens, a former four-star recruit who got the same number of starts at right tackle last season.

“When you’ve got Jordan Sims, Javon Patterson, Sean Rawlings, Rod Taylor, Greg Little and all these guys that are so experienced and have game experience, I think they’re coming together as well and communicating a lot better and learning to play together,” quarterback Shea Patterson said. “To have an experienced o-line in the SEC, it’s going to help us.”

The depth starts with Taylor, the only senior among the top six options. The former four-star prospect is listed as a co-starter with Givens on Ole Miss’ preseason depth chart but could also play inside if needed after spending his first two seasons with the Rebels at guard.

A pair of former four-star recruits will back up Little and Patterson in redshirt freshmen Royce Newman and Jack DeFoor, respectively. Behind Rawlings is former Lafayette High standout Eli Johnson while senior Daronte Boudlin could spell Sims at times.

“I think we’ve got a two deep that is extremely solid,” Freeze said.

Needing a push

The group has helped put Ole Miss among the nation’s top scoring offenses as the Rebels have been in the top 50 in that category each of the last two seasons. The problem has been getting consistent push in the running game to balance things out.

Ole Miss was 95th in rushing offense a season ago at just 149.4 yards per game, third-worst in the SEC. The Rebels have yet to finish better than seventh in the league in rushing under Freeze’s watch.

Tweaked blocking schemes under first-year offensive coordinator Phil Longo should help, but Shea Patterson said he noticed a difference up front this spring from a line that’s trying to take its game to another level this season.

“I think (running back) Jordan Wilkins broke a couple off through just wide open holes due to our schemes and our linemen just blocking everyone,” Patterson said. “It’s just fun to sit back there and watch Jordan take off for 50 yards. It’s cool.”