March 14, 2009

Sowell not intimidated by increased role

It's been a different spring for Bradley Sowell.

The realization that he's wearing a different pair of shoes, so to speak, occurs during every weight workout.

"Right now it is a little different because in the morning we do our workouts, they tell the first group to step up, and I'm used to looking at All-America Michael Oher, but now I'm in the first group," said Sowell, who is the leading candidate to replace the NFL-bound Oher at left offensive tackle in 2009. "It's time for me and Rishaw (Johnson) to get in there, adapt to the first guys and be leaders in there. I know all my plays and stuff. It is just the fact that it is the reality. You're the guy. There's nobody behind you or in front of you."

An injury to tight end David Traxler and the Ole Miss coaching staff's determination to redshirt young tight ends E.J. Epperson and Ferbia Allen forced Sowell onto the field last season as a blocking tight end in running downs. Sowell excelled at the position, even catching a 1-yard touchdown pass in the Rebels' 45-0 win against Mississippi State. However, it was his solid work against opposing defenses in the second half of the season that provided encouragement and confidence as he prepares for next season.

"Last year helped with the speed of the game and having the chance to face other guys," Sowell said earlier this week. "Until you go against the SEC, you don't know what it's like. You can do whatever in practice, but until you get in a game, it's just a different speed.

"The first game I was a little nervous, but by the time we got to (Mississippi) State, it was second nature to me."

Sowell has spent the offseason trying to get as strong as possible. He played most of last season with some 295 pounds on his 6-foot-7 frame. However, the Hernando, Miss., native is up to 305 pounds, trying to get to at least 310 by the time Ole Miss heads to Memphis on Sept. 5.

"My strength is the big focus right now," Sowell said. "My speed is better than it has ever been. I've put up good times in the shuttle and stuff, but my strength needs to go up. My squat is pretty high, but my upper-body needs a lot of improvement. Bench (press) is the main thing, and I hope to clean 300. That is the benchmark for clean. Bench is difficult because of my long arms, like Michael Oher struggled with it (at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis last month)."

Ole Miss signed five-star offensive tackle Bobby Massie in February, and all eyes will be on the Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy star when he arrives in Oxford this summer. Sowell, however, hopes to prove he's ready for his time this spring. The Rebels open spring practice on March 27, the first of 14 practices leading up to the annual Grove Bowl game on April 18.

"I want to prove myself this spring," Sowell said. "I feel like I have a lot to prove. Maybe I'm a question mark, but I hate to look at it like that. I just want to prove myself and solidify my spot. I need to come to work everyday. It is a mental thing for me to stay sharp. I've got the physical part all day. It's my time, and I've grown up a lot this offseason. I'm taking it all in."

Sowell is also cognizant of the reality that on every play, he is charge of protecting one of Ole Miss' most valuable assets. The Rebels' balanced offense is keyed by the precision of quarterback Jevan Snead, and Sowell will be charged with defending the Texan's blind side.

"It's a lot of responsibility," Sowell said. "I've been here for two years, and there are no excuses. I've seen how it is done, so I need to keep working and do it. I'm not overwhelmed or anything.

"Oher showed me how to go about playing the game. Showing up every day and not being a cocky guy, he was really humble. He taught me how to play the game, little things about pass protection and stuff."

If Sowell can do his part, he could be part of a dream season in Oxford. The Rebels won their last six games last season, beat Texas Tech by 13 points in the Cotton Bowl and will be a preseason favorite to compete for a Southeastern Conference title.

"We don't like to talk about the expectations," Sowell said. "We know what is around here. We're just trying to work really hard and prepare. It's been a long time coming around here. We're expecting big things."

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