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Givens’ injury forces young Ole Miss offensive linemen into bigger roles

OXFORD — Ole Miss needs Alex Givens. But at the same time, it was going to need others to step up even if he was healthy.

Givens, Ole Miss’s top returning, and most experienced, offensive lineman had back surgery over the summer. The team expects him to play in the season opener against Memphis on Aug. 31, but in the opening days of preseason camp he’s been limited.

For now, the plan is life without Givens.

“We’re just hoping for the best right now and hoping (Givens) can be healed as quickly as possible,” junior Eli Johnson said. “He’s our most experienced guy. So obviously with him out, it’s a loss. But I don’t think it’ll affect the way we communicate or the way we play. I’ll take responsibility of that. It’s now my job to make sure everyone’s on the same page.”

Johnson is now the de facto leader of the unit. A lot of the presumptive starters — Johnson, Royce Newman and Bryce Matthews — aren’t that young. They’re juniors, they’re just inexperienced.

Michael Howard, who has been getting first team reps at right tackle with Givens out, is also a redshirt junior but has never made a start.

Ole Miss signed seven offensive linemen in its 2019 recruiting class, and now they’re going to need some to be ready faster than usual.

“I was devastated when I heard (about Givens),” freshman Nick Broeker said. “He’s a great asset to the team and does a lot of things. But then it really came upon me that I might have to play. So, it was a lot of thoughts.”

Broeker was a name coach Matt Luke singled out specifically when talking about filling the hole left by Givens. At 6-foot-5, 290 pounds, he’s bigger than most freshmen. That should give him the edge if they need him to play from the start. Ole Miss’s top offensive line signee, four-star Darius Thomas, is dealing with a recently discovered heart condition and is out indefinitely.

“I’ve really been impressed by all the freshmen. That said, it’s really hard to evaluate until you put the pads on,” said offensive line coach Jack Bicknell, Jr. “Football is really physical and you have to see these guys and evaluate them in pads. Because we’re going to have to use them, but right now we just want to see them come camp.”

Even if Givens were healthy, Ole Miss would need something from the freshmen. Offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez likes to run. Ole Miss is going to play fast. In the past, Rodriguez said he likes to play eight or nine different linemen every game. That means it’s likely, among the freshmen, that more than just Broeker will see playing time.

As of now, the team has no plans to redshirt any of these linemen. That could clearly change, and likely will, as camp rolls along. Right now, it’s just reps and for some of the guys trying to get to a weight needed for the position to play in the SEC.

“Offensive line is a slower-developing player than other positions, so that will be interesting. But I’m looking forward to camp to see them work,” Johnson said. “They all look good coming out of high school, but you never know. You can’t really tell until the pads get thrown on.”

SEC football is considerably more physical and tougher than high school. These 18-year-old players will soon line up across from future first-round NFL draft picks.

That said, it’s not a completely new deal. Miami Dolphins tackle and 2016 first-round draft pick Laremy Tunsil started at Ole Miss as a freshman. So did right guard Ben Brown, a former St. Aloysius star, last season when he earned Freshman All-SEC honors and started every game.

“Young is one thing, and we are young. But you can still be very talented and be young,” Bicknell Jr. said. “So obviously, this will be a huge preseason camp to get those guys ready.”

By Nathanael Gabler, the Oxford Eagle