OXFORD, Miss. — Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze made a surprise choice to protect his team’s most valuable asset.
Junior Rod Taylor will be the starter at left tackle when No. 11 Ole Miss plays No. 4 Florida State on Monday in Orlando, Florida. That means the 6-foot-3, 329-pounder — who has never made a start at either tackle spot — will be charged with protecting quarterback Chad Kelly’s blindside against the Seminoles’ talented defense.
If Ole Miss expects another banner year from Kelly — who threw for 4,042 yards and running for 500 more during the program’s 10-win season a year ago — Taylor and the rest of the offensive line will have to keep the quarterback from getting pressured, hit and sacked.
Freeze said he “loves” the work that Taylor and the rest of the offensive line has done during preseason camp. Even so, he said it’s hard to predict how the relatively inexperienced group will react to one of the best teams in the country.
“I like what I see on tape, but give me a couple weeks and we will know if it is fool’s gold or not,” Freeze said.
Taylor is a converted guard, but still beat out prized freshman recruit Greg Little and a handful of other candidates. He replaces Laremy Tunsil, a three-year starter who was a first-round NFL draft pick by the Miami Dolphins.
Freeze acknowledges Taylor doesn’t have the ideal body to play left tackle. He’s a little short for the position and doesn’t have the longest arms, but Freeze says Taylor’s athleticism makes up for it.
His quarterback agrees.
“He’s been really good,” Kelly said. “He’s an athletic guy. He’s got a lot of confidence and he’s physical. Playing the left tackle position that’s what you need. As long as he’s stays the course, does the right thing and keeps on learning he’ll be good.”
Senior center Robert Conyers — one of the few veterans up front — says Taylor should be fine as long as he’s mentally prepared.
“I think it starts more between your ears,” Conyers said. “Being smart and knowing where you can get beat and where you can’t get beat. If you know what you’re doing, that’s half the battle. He’s got a leg up on everybody else just because he’s more athletic than just about anybody who plays that position.”
Taylor’s emergence was a bit of a surprise considering his career has been checkered with occasional discipline problems. The latest was when he was arrested on suspicion of shoplifting during the spring.
Senior tight end Evan Engram said it’s been rewarding to see Taylor mature during the summer and is confident he can anchor the left side of the line.
“If he takes this seriously, applies himself and puts the work in he can be that pivotal player who could change the shape of our offensive line and even our team,” Engram said.
Florida State will undoubtedly put Taylor’s maturity to the test early and often on Monday. The Seminoles have made no secret that disrupting Kelly’s rhythm is crucial to their success.
“Chad Kelly, he’s what keeps the factory running over there,” Florida State safety Derwin James said. “He’s a big part of what they do. They feed off him. He can beat you on the run, he can beat you with the pass.”
AP Sports Writer Joe Reedy in Tallahassee, Florida, contributed to this story.