OXFORD, Miss. — Heading into the season opener against Memphis, Rebel fans aren’t quite sure what they’ll see from Ole Miss when the 11:00 a.m. kickoff finally arrives—especially from the Rebels’ revamped offensive line that lost three starters from last season.
But after talking to offensive line coach Jack Bicknell after practice earlier this week, a few of the biggest questions were answered.
Alex Givens returns
Probably the most discussed has been whether or not Alex Givens would be able to play against the Tigers. The 6-foot-6, 308-pound senior lineman missed most all of fall camp since back surgery in July; however, on Tuesday he got his first taste of practice since the spring.
Coach Bicknell was obviously encouraged Tuesday to see his star right tackle finally able to take some snaps. “Obviously, a positive sign that he’s out there, an exciting sign,” began Bicknell. “We need to see how he progresses and what he feels like…We’re hopeful we can get something out of him, that’s for sure.”
On Wednesday, head coach Matt Luke confirmed Bicknell’s assessment of the star o-lineman, saying Givens will see playing time against the Tigers but will be limited.
“Alex has practiced full speed both days in pads,” Luke said.
“Obviously, he’s not going to be like he’s been practicing the whole time, but, again, like we said earlier, his experience gives him a chance. He obviously won’t be able to play the full game, but just having him out there from a morale standpoint and with the team, he means so much to those guys, I just think it will be very positive and whatever he can give us will be a big boost.”
Head coach Matt Luke on Alex Givens
Another major storyline heading into fall camp was whether or not Michael Howard would be able to put on the necessary weight to compete as an every-down lineman in the SEC. The answer is a resounding, “yes.”
Howard broke the 280-pound mark earlier in the offseason before the team headed into fall camp. While there had been some concern as to whether Howard could maintain that weight once the rigors of fall camp began — especially in the Mississippi heat — Bicknell noted Howard has been able to maintain that weight throughout fall camp.
“He sure has,” Bicknell begin. “He’s been hanging in there, 280 (pounds) right on the dot. We check his weight every day. I don’t even think he’s gone up or down a pound, so that’s been really, really positive,” he continued.
“What a great addition he’s been and we needed him. I told him last spring, ‘We are going to flat out need you, man. So if you want to be out there at 260 pounds, that’s your problem. But you’re going to be out there.’”
Coach Bicknell on Michael Howard
With Howard assuming the starting job at left tackle, Bryce Mathews has moved over to right tackle to help out until Givens can go one-hundred percent. Mathews’ versatility brings so much to the offensive line as he can play in several different places. Right guard Ben Brown is also able to play more than one position and has practiced some at center in case starting center Eli Johnson should need a break.
Coach Bicknell tells us he enjoys coaching linemen who can be versatile and don’t have the mindset of wanting to just play in one spot.
“I’m kind of used to that and I like that flexibility,” Bicknell said. “Alex (Givens) has played guard and tackle. Royce (Newman) has played guard and tackle. Ben (Brown) can play center and guard. I think that flexibility is important. I think he (Bryce Mathews) understands we are trying to get the best five guys and see where everyone ends up.”
Nick Broeker could see playing time
In the pursuit of developing o-line depth for this upcoming season, the Rebels signed seven offensive linemen in the Class of 2019. Coach Bicknell offered some insight into who he thought would be asked to contribute as a true freshman if the situation presented itself.
“I think that probably Nick Broeker would be the one guy right now that has picked it up enough that I would be comfortable playing him.”
Coach Bicknell on Nick Broeker
“And then those other guys are right there, too,” Bicknell continued. “But I just think position-wise and being able to pick it up and being in good enough shape — and that’s another thing, some of those guys just didn’t understand the shape you need to be in — Nick was a basketball player. He’s kind of used to running up and down the floor and used to being in shape.
“So he would be the one guy that sticks out to me that right now is ready to go, but I’m happy with all of them. I think they’re all going to be good players,” Bicknell commented.
Since Broeker first signed with the Rebels back in December, we’ve had a really good feeling he would find himself as the starting left tackle at some point down the road.
The 6-foot-6, 305-pound Springfield, Illinois native has very good footwork and does a great job in run blocking. His athletic ability will help him in pass-protection against the really quick defensive ends in this league. We wouldn’t be shocked to see Broeker step into the starting role at left tackle after Howard’s eligibility expires.
This offensive line has patiently waited for its turn. The unit has heard all the questions and is ready to step up and answer the call. Don’t be surprised to see the Ole Miss running game put up some big numbers against Memphis this weekend!
We won’t be.