HOOVER, Ala. — Left tackle Michael Oher had three years of starting experience under his belt. He had enough accolades, earning first-team All-Southeastern Conference honors in 2007.
He even had the fame after a Michael Lewis book called "The Blind Side" captured his remarkable life story.
So when the Ole Miss lineman entered the 2008 NFL Draft last winter, it didn't come as any surprise. But after Oher quickly changed directions a day later, it was clear there's one thing the Memphis native didn't have: Enough of college football.
"I thought I was ready to go," Oher said. "But coming back, I found out it was the best decision I could've ever made."
Oher will make one more trip around the SEC when he anchors Ole Miss' offensive line in 2008. He already has 34 career starts, but is expected to be one of the top offensive linemen in the nation as the Rebels open the Houston Nutt era.
It's no wonder Nutt said convincing Oher to return to school was one of his top recruiting coups of the winter. Oher gives Ole Miss a massive block to begin their rebuilding process.
"He brings a lot to the table for our football team," Nutt said. "We want him to be a little bit more dominant, a little more physical. But he has everything. He has all the tools."
The fact is, Oher still has plenty he can improve on as he prepares himself for the professional game.
The 6-foot-5, 318-pounder has a unique combination of size and athleticism. He played basketball in high school, dabbled as a pitcher in eighth grade and is a tremendous all-around athlete.
But his strength has always been a question mark. Oher said getting stronger was an emphasis in the weight room in the offseason and sees the benefits. He wouldn't reveal how much weight he could bench press last season, but proudly proclaimed he can now do it six times at SEC Media Days.
"I've come a long way," Oher said. "I've worked hard. I'm doing everything in my power to get to the highest level. I want to get up to the NFL, so you've got to work hard."
OLE MISS INSIDER
DIFFERENCE MAKER: Ole Miss has longed for a stable starting quarterback since Eli Manning's departure and may have it with Jevan Snead. The former Texas quarterback, who transferred after the 2006 season, has a big frame and a big arm. Nutt has raved about his performances in scrimmages and practices. What he does on the field will be the key to the Rebels' success.
RISING STAR: Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt's offense needs a big-play back and freshman Enrique Davis is expected to fill the void. The highly-touted back spent the 2007 season at Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy, but will play a big role in the offense. He will share carries with Cordera Eason, but don't be surprised if Davis is handling the bulk of the load as the season goes on.
BIGGEST STRENGTH: The Rebels biggest strength lies where they need it most: In the trenches. The offensive line, led by Oher and mammoth right tackle John Jerry, has four starters back. The defensive line is led by all-SEC candidates Greg Hardy and Peria Jerry. It also has an interesting addition in Jerrell Powe, who is finally eligible after three years of battling with the NCAA.
BIGGEST QUESTION: How will newcomers Powe and linebacker Patrick Trahan impact the defense? Both players — who were big-time recruits that had academic troubles — have received word from the NCAA that they will be eligible this season. If they can make contributions early and gain strength as the season wears on, Ole Miss could become a formidable defensive unit.
MARK YOUR CALENDAR: Ole Miss coaches are judged by their performance against top rivals LSU and Mississippi State. So the final two games of the 2008 season will be key. The Rebels play the Tigers in Baton Rouge and the Bulldogs in Oxford. Their play in those two games could determine their bowl outlook.
FORECAST: 6-6, 2-6 in SEC
When fall camp opened up a little over two weeks ago, Rebel OL Coach Mike Markuson had some…