The story with the offensive line continues to be its depth.
Earlier in fall practice, offensive line coach Matt Luke said they should have eight or nine players ready to go this season, and that depth is taking shape on the practice fields, as senior Patrick Junen returned to full-speed practice on Monday.
"Right now, we're probably looking at three tackles and maybe four guards, so seven, then you always have got to have another center ready, so seven or eight is a fair number," Luke said Tuesday of the offensive line rotation.
Ole Miss returns both of its starting tackles from last season, seniors Emmanuel McCray and Pierce Burton, at left tackle and right tackle, respectively. Luke said he expects them to be leaders this season, as they both enter year two as starters.
"For us to be good this year, our seniors have to play like seniors," Luke said. "I expect them to be leaders and role models for those young guys. Laremy (Tunsil) is going to play some, so they have to be able to handle that and help mentor him to be the player that he can be.
With McCray out due to a family issue, Tunsil earned first-team reps at left tackle in Saturday's scrimmage, and head coach Hugh Freeze said Monday that Luke said Tunsil graded out better than any freshman he has ever coached in a scrimmage. Tunsil also drew similar praise from one of his teammates.
"Laremy is a class act," McCray said. "He's definitely a talented kid. He has to keep a level head, learn how to practice harder and play hard when he's tired. As far as the fundamentals, there are little things here and there, but for him to be a freshman and as talented as he is, he will be just fine."
There has been a lot of competition at both guard positions, with junior Aaron Morris, senior Jared Duke, sophomore Justin Bell, senior Patrick Junen and freshman Austin Golson all getting reps there.
At right guard, Junen missed most of the spring and the first two weeks of fall practice due to injury, so Bell got most of the first-team reps there. On Tuesday, Junen got first-team reps due to Bell being held out with a minor back issue.
"He missed most of the spring and sat out," Luke said of Junen. "That's always hard. The good thing is he's played a lot of football. I don't think it will take him long once we get into the flow of the season. Obviously, conditioning is going to be an issue. He's not ready to play a full game yet. Hopefully, by the third or fourth game, he will be."
"Without a doubt," Luke said of Bell making a strong case to be the starting right guard. "He's been there, day in and day out. He's a great kid. He's competing his butt off. It's very, very important to him. I am very comfortable with Justin playing, if we had to start today."
Senior Evan Swindall returns at center, but behind him, redshirt freshman Robert Conyers and sophomore Ben Still have split reps there.
"I have still have got a few days to decide between (Robert) and Ben," Luke said. "They are going back and forth, splitting all those reps. It's a battle. I would say, right now, they're about even. I would feel comfortable with either going in there and fighting and competing. Obviously, we want Evan to get the majority of the reps, but he's always one play away, so they have got to be ready to play."
'Back Into The Swing Of Things'
After missing most of the spring and first two weeks of fall practice due to toe and wrist injuries, senior offensive guard Patrick Junen returned to full-speed practice on Monday.
"It was very frustrating," Junen said of missing practice. "Seeing my fellow seniors out there, guys who I have been here for four years with, going through it and not being out there with them, it's super frustrating. I'm finally getting back into the swing of things and trying to get back on the line."
After losing seasons in 2010 and 2011, then last year's 7-6 season, Junen said there's much more excitement going into this season.
"It's a great feeling seeing Coach Freeze come in and build a program that's winning," Junen said. "It's very exciting to be a part of that and be able to be there at the beginning of the transition and go through it."
Protecting Wallace, Increasing The Tempo
As Ole Miss prepares for Vanderbilt, senior offensive tackle Emmanuel McCray said they're not letting the preseason hype and expectations get in their mind at all, especially on the offensive line.
"We gave up too many sacks, and we had a lot of little things that we could have fixed," McCray said. "Toward the middle and end of the season, we honed in on the little things and did them better. We're trying to pick off where we left off and get better from there."
One of those things, McCray said, is protecting junior quarterback Bo Wallace, who underwent offseason clavicle surgery.
"With him coming off the surgery, we're taking it personal already, just because we already kind of feel responsible for last year's injury," McCray said. "You definitely don't want to see your quarterback hurt. And with the quarterback situation that we have, we never know who's next after Bo. We don't know that right now, so we need to keep him healthy as possible."
Another of those things is tempo, which the offensive linemen have talked about throughout fall practice.
"We feel faster," McCray said of the tempo. "We're still getting into tempo shape. It's looking pretty good. We're definitely ahead of schedule, but we're not where we want to be. We had a couple of guys who were out with injuries and surgeries, like (Patrick) Junen and Aaron (Morris) that still got to get in shape. But for the most part, we're moving faster and looking better."