Sept. 11, 2013
By Lauren McMillin
Ole Miss Athletics Media Relations
All eyes are on the center as he snaps the ball, the quarterback as he throws the pass, and finally, on the wide receiver as he makes the catch and gets a first down. On the next play, everyone is watching the running back as he weaves his way through bodies and takes off toward the goal line. What goes virtually unnoticed, however, are the players that make all of this possible. They are the offensive line, and collectively, they provide the shield that allows great plays to happen.
Serving as the cornerstone of the team, the offensive line sets the foundation for how things will unfold, ultimately deciding how the chains will move. Of the five players that form the offensive line, three of the key positions include the right tackle, the left tackle and the center. Filled by returning seniors Pierce Burton, Emmanuel McCray and Evan Swindall, these positions will raise the bar this season for the Rebels' offense, leading the team to victory one play at a time.
With football season finally underway, the Rebels are ready to unveil their progress. According to Swindall, a center from LaFayette, Ga., the anticipation is noticeably more palpable in year two under head coach Hugh Freeze.
"I think we're more excited about this year," Swindall said. "We're a little more comfortable with the offense, and I think the fans are more excited about this year, too. We won seven games last year, and I think we're all excited to see what we can do this year."
After a full year under Coach Freeze, the Rebels have adjusted to their new playing style and are making tremendous improvements on all levels, not just on the field.
"It's a huge difference (from last year)," said Burton, a right tackle from Sacramento, Calif. "There's more accountability... everything is just better all around, whether it's the plays, whether it's guys hanging out off the field. Just across the board, everything is more fine-tuned."
The ability to implement plays and to push forward is necessary with the Rebels' high-speed offense, a style that the offensive line has grown to know and understand. According to McCray, a left tackle from Jackson, adjusting to an increased tempo has made a drastic impact on the way the offensive line functions.
"We've gotten in even better shape because of the tempo that we play," he said. "We understood that we had to get in better shape and get a better understanding to memorize the plays. As fast as we go, we don't have time to think. That's the biggest change."
Moving at a rapid pace has its challenges, but it can also take a toll on the opposing defense, giving the offensive line an advantage.
"It's pretty hard, initially, but it has its perks," McCray said. "Once you see the defense we're going against, they're gassed, and we have this second wind because we're used to this speed. It definitely helps in the second half of the game, building confidence, and as an offensive unit, we just forge on and dominate."
With most of the action occurring among the positions that actually get to touch the football, spectators may not always notice how important and strategic the offensive linemen actually are.
"A lot of times the defense is moving," Burton said. "We've got to change our blocking scheme on the fly, and sometimes we don't even have time to talk about it. Sometimes we just have to roll with it, so everyone across the board has to have an understanding of what everyone on the offensive line is doing. I think a lot of people don't realize that."
As long as the offensive linemen understand their job on the team, that's all that truly matters. "We're used to being not seen," McCray said. "We're just the guys that don't touch the ball and just block. As long as our team knows and our coaches know that we're the foundation of the offense as to how they roll, then we're fine with that."
The strength and the ability of the offensive line are vital to the overall success of a team. What sets the Rebels' offensive line apart goes beyond the basics of being able to block. According to Swindall, the secret is compatibility.
"We work well together, we have chemistry and we know the calls," he said.
As a line made mostly of returning seniors, the experience that they've had playing together is a contributing factor, as well.
"I would say the strongest part of the offensive line is we've all played together, and we all know what we're doing," Burton said. "Offensive line isn't five pennies. It's a nickel. That's kind of cliché, but we all have to know what we're doing and work together. Four of the five starters are back, so we really have a good understanding of playing next to each other."
As seniors on this up and coming Rebel team, these linemen have shifted into a position of leadership, as well.
"I try to lead by example as much as I can," Burton said. "Our offensive line, I think some of the younger guys have been looking to us seniors, and it's become our job to kind of pass the torch to them. It's our job to show the freshmen how it's done and how to do things. I think we're doing a pretty good job of doing that."
As the season continues, these three seniors and their fellow offensive linemen will continue to strive for success, guiding the Rebels' offense with every snap, every block, every play. And as far as what the season has in store for the Rebel Nation, Burton sums it up perfectly: "Expect great things."