OXFORD, Miss. (WTVA/Ole Miss Athletics) – The 2019 Ole Miss football team strapped on the shoulder pads for the first time Monday morning to kick off the first full week of fall practice.
Following Monday's practice session, head coach Matt Luke, along with defensive back Montrell Custis, offensive lineman Michael Howard and defensive end Tariqious Tisdale, met with the media to provide the latest updates from inside fall camp.
Montrell Custis had an outstanding start to the 2018 season and was just settling into a key role in the Rebel secondary when he suffered a season-ending knee injury. Now, the senior out of Jonesboro, Georgia, is working his way back onto the field and hopes to be ready to go by the end of fall camp.
"I'm feeling good, getting back in shape. Rehab is going great," Custis said. "We've got great trainers and great doctors out here, they say my knee is re-structured, so I've just got to beat the mental part now."
DRAWING THE LINE
Last season, Ole Miss had the luxury of a veteran offensive line, laden with upperclassmen. Several members of that unit are now gone to the professional ranks, and the eldest returner, senior Alex Givens, is limited this fall recovering from back surgery. The youth, coupled with the uncertainty, has Luke spending a little extra time around his O-Line unit during practice, but he likes what he's seeing so far.
"They realize all the talk that's out there," Luke said of his offensive line. "They just have to go prepare with a sense of urgency and a chip on their shoulder. Some of the young guys have to get ready a little bit quicker, and some of the older guys have to step up. Michael Howard is one of the guys who has really stepped up there, the added weight has helped him. Been very pleased with Royce Newman. Eli Johnson has been fighting in there at center. Bryce Matthews has been playing some center, some tackle. Royce is playing some guard, some tackle. Jalen Cunningham has shown some flashes. Nick Broker and Jeremy James, a couple of freshmen, have been in there with the twos and competing. We're looking at a bunch of different lineups. They're working and understand that sense of urgency."
Howard has been one of the most crucial pieces of that O-Line group during fall camp, filling in the starting right tackle role with Givens sidelined. Howard, one of the most hard-nosed players on the Rebel roster, has played primarily on special teams throughout his career. The redshirt senior came to Oxford in 2015, weighing in at 232 pounds and has fought to pack on weight throughout his career. He played at 257 last season but is now tipping the scales at 280 as he looks to contribute along the offensive front.
"Everything I saw, I ate," Howard said. "If it was there and was edible, I had to eat it. It was just a mindset that I have to get bigger and be there to back my guys up. I really worked hard this offseason with a lot of the guys, especially people who have been in games. Being heavier helps, but you have to be a technician."
While the offensive line is breaking in a host of new personnel, the defensive front will benefit from a large contingent of returning players. However, that defensive line will have a new look as well as it transitions to the 3-4 defense, comprised of three down linemen and four linebackers.
Early in the install, the Rebel defenders are enjoying the switch. Defensive end Tariqious Tisdale, who played in a 3-4 scheme in junior college, spoke Monday about the growing comfort in defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre's new scheme, as well as the mindset of the defense coming into the 2019 season.
"I feel like it fits me and fits us better having our guys who are big but aren't so big to play D-Line, like Qaadir Sheppard and Charles Wiley, play linebacker," Tisdale said. "We've been ready to get back after it. We all have it in our head that last year is not going to happen again. We all have the same goal and mindset to go out and compete."