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July 20, 2011OXFORD, Miss. -- Replacing Michael Oher was going to be difficult under any circumstances.
Throw in the most anticipated season in his school's modern history, a career night from Eric Norwood and a heat-of-the-moment quote gone wrong and Bradley Sowell's job was borderline impossible.
Almost two years after that nationally-televised Thursday nightmare, Sowell is one of the Southeastern Conference's most respected offensive tackles, on the cusp of redemption and on the radars of scouts throughout the NFL.
The path from prot? to whipping boy to team leader has been anything but smooth, but Sowell said recently he wouldn't change much of what has shaped his college career. Instead, Sowell is looking ahead to his senior season at Ole Miss, hoping he can help lead the team he grew up cheering for back into the postseason after a miserable 2010 season.
INAUSPICIOUS DEBUT: Sowell's SEC debut couldn't have gone any worse. On a brutally muggy night in Columbia, S.C., Norwood served as the master of ceremonies for Sowell's initiation into SEC football. Norwood recorded 10 tackles, two quarterback sacks and two hurries in the Gamecocks' 16-10 win over then-No. 4 Ole Miss.
"At the time, you felt like you were prepared for it, but you really didn't know what you were in store for," Sowell said. "I felt I did all the hard work, I'm ready to go, but you really didn't know. Looking back on it, I wasn't as prepared for it as I thought.
"It was frustrating because I didn't know if it was going to be like that every Saturday. People were telling me, 'That guy's really good. He's done that to a lot of guys over the years.' I wondered if I was ready to play in the SEC after playing somebody like that."
Norwood, now an outside linebacker for the Carolina Panthers, beat Sowell to the outside with speed and to the inside with a combination of power and quickness. That constant pressure flustered quarterback Jevan Snead, and the Rebels' passing attack never got on track.
"That would have happened to a lot of young offensive tackles, what happened to him," Ole Miss offensive line coach Mike Markuson said. "We probably didn't put him in a lot of good situations, to be fair to him."
Sowell didn't get out of Williams-Brice Stadium before things got worse. In the postgame media frenzy that followed the Rebels fall from national prominence, Sowell said he was "glad" the ranking "is gone. I'm glad it's gone so we can just get back to work and win some ballgames. You can't really pay attention to that anyway. Nobody really cared. I'm just glad it's over with so everybody can quit talking about it and just play ball now."
Sowell boarded the plane in Columbia for the return flight to Oxford, not knowing a firestorm was brewing on Internet message boards frequented by Ole Miss fans. By midday Friday, Sowell's comments _ not the Rebels' failure to get the football into Dexter McCluster's hands until the fourth quarter _ were the topic of enraged Rebel fans.
"It kind of shocked me later," Sowell said. "I really didn't realize what I said. I was so tired. I was so caught up in the moment. I really didn't mean that like people took it. I was really just saying the expectations don't mean (crap), really. It was the second game of the year. There's really no ranked team. I guess I said the wrong words. It was my first after-the-game interview and I was so frustrated and people took it the wrong way.
"It really didn't bother me. The coaches knew that I cared and that I loved the team and it wasn't like that at all."
Within hours of the loss, Sowell became the convenient target for many Ole Miss fans' frustration. As if replacing Michael Oher at left tackle wasn't already difficult enough, Sowell was suddenly a lightning rod for passionate criticism on message boards and talk radio.
Less than one month into his career as a starter, Sowell was at a crossroads of sorts. Self-doubt threatened his confidence. The outside criticism was distracting and hurtful. More defensive ends and outside linebackers loomed.
FROM 'BLIND SIDE' TO BLIND EYE: Weeks later, Ole Miss' offensive ineptitude was on full display in a 22-3 loss to eventual national champion Alabama. That afternoon led to what appeared to be an overhaul of Ole Miss' offense, as the Rebels converted McCluster into a full-time tailback. For Sowell, however, it was just part of the learning curve.
"As time went on, I got better and better and I had the experience against guys like (Norwood)," Sowell said. "If I went back now, I'd probably be a lot better against him than I was the first time."
While Sowell adjusted to life in the SEC, he remained very much a lightning rod for harsh fan criticism. The Hernando, Miss., native said he didn't frequent message boards, but the barbs reached his eyes.
"People send you stuff and show you stuff that's said," Sowell said. "At first, it hurt my feelings but after awhile, I was like, 'You know, whatever. It's good motivation.'
"People were kind of (dumping) on me a little bit. I've always been an Ole Miss fan and they were acting like I didn't care about the program, which was completely (wrong). I've always been an Ole Miss fan. Everybody knows I care about the team. I probably care about it more than anybody."
Sowell made a conscious decision. He insulated himself. He focused on his game and his team. The only criticism he heard was the constructive reviews offered by Markuson. He surrounded himself with family and friends.
"I got used to it," Sowell said with a laugh. "I kind of like it."
"It really didn't bother us that much," Sowell's father, Keith Sowell, said. "I knew it was going to be tough on him. Michael Oher's are big shoes to fill. It's like when we lost Eli Manning. Nobody could be good enough for awhile, it seemed."
POSITIVE PRESS: While Ole Miss struggled to its first losing season in the Houston Nutt era last fall, Sowell began to emerge as a consistent player. Sowell started in all 12 games, helping Ole Miss lead the SEC in fewest sacks allowed.
"He got better," Keith Sowell said. "I knew he was going to get better. I knew he was going to learn. All of this is the gifts you get for working hard, getting better and giving your all out there."
Sowell's improvement was noticed beyond the family living room. Earlier this summer, Sowell was placed on the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award watch lists. The SEC coaches voted him first-team preseason All-SEC. That recognition, Sowell admitted, has provided some sense of vindication.
"You know, you've been through all this stuff and I never really said anything," Sowell said. "This is kind of my way of speaking without saying anything."
"He's increased his strength levels in the weight room," Markuson said. "He's gotten faster and you can't substitute the experience. He's a third-year starter. He's played against some great players in this league, some of the best. He's a fifth-year senior and that's got to give him a lot of confidence."
NOT SATISFIED: Keith Sowell said he and his son recently discussed some of those preseason accolades.
"'This doesn't mean nothing until the end of the year. It's how you finish,'" Keith Sowell said he told his son.
It's a message Bradley Sowell was already preaching to that guy he sees every morning in the mirror.
"I really want to get better," Bradley Sowell said. "I don't want to get complacent and be one of those guys who falls in the late rounds (of the NFL draft). I've always done this. I've always gotten better through each step. I want to get better and better. That's why every time I work out, I work myself to death. I always stay later. I just don't want to be a disappointment."
The respect Sowell has earned from SEC coaches hasn't yet carried over to NFL scouts. A quick glance through very early NFL draft projections reveals a bevy of analysts believe Sowell would be drafted in the sixth or seventh round of the NFL draft if it were held today rather than in April.
Pro Football Weekly's Matt Feminis said in an email to RebelGrove.com Sowell "has a free agent grade as far as I know and that looks about right from handful of plays I've seen. Keep in mind the SEC lost (Derek) Sherrod, (James) Carpenter, (Joseph) Barksdale and (Lee) Ziemba last year, so a first-team preseason vote isn't worth a whole bunch at this point. Ziemba wound up going lower than some thought (rightfully so in my opinion) after starting a ton of games in the SEC, so if that's one of his best selling points, I don't know that helps him a ton. The senior tackle class isn't special."
Sowell said he knows he has plenty to prove. Raising his NFL stock, however, is far from Sowell's only goal this fall. Last season, one that saw the Rebels lose seven of eight SEC games and fall to archrival Mississippi State for the second straight year, left a bad taste in Sowell's mouth.
"When we lose, if people could see me after the game, they would know how much I love the program," Sowell said. "I've always known I was going to come to Ole Miss and it happened. I got to help my team. We had a bad year last year but this year is going to be different."
"It's about finishing," Markuson said. "He has to finish every play he competes in. The proof's in the film."
Sowell and fellow offensive tackle Bobby Massie anchor an offensive line that should _ along with running back Brandon Bolden _ be the strongest component of Ole Miss' team. In other words, the pressure is on.
"I love pressure," Sowell said. "People think I'm bad under pressure or I don't want us to be ranked high because of what I said (in Columbia). That's not me at all. Anybody that knows me knows if you put pressure on me, that's what I'm at my best."
Those are words that likely excite a fan base. They definitely make a father proud.
"He's grown up a lot," Keith Sowell said. "He's always been a competitor. I can't say it's surprised me. It's excited me that he's gone as far as he has. The future looks bright for him. He's grown up to be a man and he's paved his own way."
And the criticism that could have broken Sowell's spirit has only made him stronger and more resilient. That hasn't surprised Keith Sowell either. Instead, it's simply reinforced something he saw in his son long before he became a 6-foot-7, 315-pound college football player.
"It was my son, not their son," Keith Sowell said. "I knew what he could do. I knew his heart. We didn't lose any sleep over it. Let's put it that way. He wanted to get better."
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