July 10, 2008

Oher happy to be back for senior season

At first glance, Michael Oher looks like he always has -- huge and imposing.

However, Ole Miss' All-Southeastern Conference offensive tackle said Thursday he's a different person than he was a year ago.

"Let's just say that I hit the (bench press) max I hit last spring and I did that six times (this) summer," Oher said.

The Rebels' senior left tackle doesn't like to talk about specific numbers _ press him for bench press and squat maximums all you'd like; he politely declines to provide details _ but he's clearly confident he's stronger now than he has been at any other point in his Ole Miss career.

"I'm just working hard and trying to get better," Oher said. "(Ole Miss strength and conditioning coach Don Decker) has gotten my strength up."

Oher's relative lack of upper-body strength, something he discovered during some training sessions in Nashville after he had declared for the NFL draft following his junior season, was one of the reasons he decided to come back to Ole Miss for his final campaign.

"That was one of the deciding factors," Oher said. "I knew I needed (to improve) my upper-body strength. I've always had lower-body strength. That was one of the things I needed to work out when I came back. I've improved on that dramatically.

"I haven't gone up against anybody, but I feel it every day. I think about it. I think it's going to help me out a lot if I get a lot stronger."

Oher, a 6-foot-5, 318-pounder who became a bit of a household name when he was the key figure in Michael Lewis' best-selling book, The Blind Side, had been projected as a mid- to late-first-round pick in last April's draft. At least two mock drafts, www.newnfldraft.com and Buckrock's 2009 Mock (www.footballsfuture.com), have Oher projected as the No. 1 overall pick in the April 2009 draft. In other words, if Oher has the season he hopes to have, his decision to return to Oxford for one more year in the Southeastern Conference's trenches, it could result in millions.

"I don't have any regrets about it, but I know I could've gotten in there," Oher said. "It is what it is and I'm just trying to work harder for next year's draft."

Specifically, Oher was challenged by Ole Miss offensive line coach Mike Markuson to get more physical in the running game. Markuson's critique didn't upset Oher. Instead, he accepted the challenge.

"The NFL's a physical game," Oher said. "You have to physical all the time. That's what I got better on this spring. That's what my upper-body strength is going to help me with."

Oher also came back because the three years of losing _ the Rebels have won just three SEC games in his three seasons at the college level _ had left a bad taste in his mouth.

"That's important," Oher said, even though he admitted he doesn't believe the NFL cares whether he plays for a winner on Saturdays or not. "That's one of the reasons I came back -- to win some games and stuff like that. I think we'll have some big chances."

Oher certainly plans to do his part. As promised, new Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt has implemented an off-season program designed to get the Rebels into much better shape. Oher has been there every step of the way.

"Everybody's getting in shape," Oher said. "I'm going to keep pushing myself. Everybody's working hard.

"Last week we did something where we had to run 30 sprints or something like that," Oher said. "A month ago, I really was wondering how I was going to make that, but I made it and I got through that day. I was real proud of myself because it was a real serious conditioning thing."

Oher believes all of the hard work could pay off this fall. The Rebels open the season Aug. 30 at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium against Memphis, and Oher said all of the pieces are in place _ on the field and in the locker room _ for Ole Miss to rebound.

"We just have to finish, because all of our skill guys are great," Oher said. "I think we just have to come together. Everything is setting up. We just have to come together. …We've always been close, but it's just we're more relaxed and more comfortable now," Oher said. "It is a different atmosphere now. Being relaxed and comfortable, that helps out too."

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