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Ole Miss' star-studded defense hinges on its unheralded linebacking corps

NFL prospects are littered across the Rebels' defensive line and secondary, but it's the linebackers -- a group replacing it's top three players from a year ago -- that could make or break the Ole Miss defense.

Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

Under Dave Wommack, the Ole Miss linebackers have often seemed like a makeshift unit... but rarely have they been an ineffective one. Though lacking the NFL prototypes that churn though Alabama, LSU, and Auburn annually, Wommack has combined heady, sure-tackling veterans (Mike Marry, Deterrian Shackleford) with speedy, undersized playmakers (Denzel Nkemdiche, Serderius Bryant) to piece together respectable SEC units. Ole Miss loses its three leading tacklers from 2014's linebacking unit, leading many (including myself, a few months ago) to fear that the cupboard would be left bare. However, with some Money Ball-esque recruiting, a key position change, and a senior trying to change his career narrative, Wommack may have pieced together his best linebacking unit yet.

Mike linebackers

C.J. Johnson's move from defensive end to linebacker is a testament to the versatility of Wommack's defense, as well as to the talent that Hugh Freeze and Chris Kiffin have recruited along the defensive line. Though it remains to be seen whether Johnson can be an effective SEC linebacker after three years with his hand in the dirt, Johnson has shown that he has the speed to chase running backs to the sideline from his defensive end spot. He still has a linebacker's body, and should now have lots of experience shedding blocks and rushing the passer. And though DT Shackleford's leadership and effort will be hard to replace, C.J. brings a little more of an edge to the position. He's a tireless trash-talker, but also shows a lot of discipline and knowledge of the game.

Christian Russell spent 2014 backing up Shackleford. Though he saw decent playing time, he only registered 23 tackles on the year, nine of them against Texas A&M. An interesting find from the JUCO ranks, Russell is pushing C.J. Johnson for minutes at Mike linebacker. It will be interesting to see if Russell benefits from the second-year boost that many JUCO transfers experience. He certainly has the weight and speed to do the job against run-heavy teams.

Stinger linebackers

Denzel Nkemdiche is trying hard to change his current narrative: a story of "what could have been." We'll avoid the offseason-think-piece stuff about Nkemdiche's attitude, growth as a person, yadda yadda, and talk about him as an athlete. Denzel has experienced ill-timed leg injuries each of the last two seasons. Not severe or early enough to earn him a medical redshirt, but not minor enough to play through as an effective SEC starter. Now, we're left with a pretty distant memory of the 2012 version of Nkemdiche, who could blow up plays with his blitzes, read quarterbacks' eyes, and generally provide the momentum for a young and hungry defense. Now healthy, and with only a year left, Denzel has to prove himself again, this time with a talented challenger on his heels.

Demarquis Gates was a bit of an afterthought last year, after Ken Webster, Fadol Brown, Marquis Haynes, and other newcomers made their marks on the Landshark defense. He was also an afterthought of the 2014 signing class; after a knee injury sidelined him for his senior season, he slid in recruiting rankings and out of the spotlight. But after contributing heavily on special teams in 2014, Gates is looking to establish himself as a starter this year. Gates has the length and speed that Wommack wants from his Stinger position. While Nkemdiche is comfortably shy of six feet, Gates is listed at 6'2. In the Grove Bowl, Gates led his team with five tackles, and though he has worked at Mike linebacker some, it's now thought that coaches are focusing on Gates at Stinger because he's pushing for a starting spot.


Behind this tentative two-deep, Ole Miss has plenty of question marks, but also a fair number of options. Back in March, some dummy wrote off RayRay Smith as a guy who could never be counted on to make an impact at Ole Miss. Guess whose name came up first when Dave Wommack was asked about depth at linebacker last week?

"I'm really not concerned about it, because RayRay Smith has really come on strong. Gates... I've got Tayler Polk, who I've got a lot of confidence in. I think Christian (Russell) has gotten better, as well as Temario (Strong)... Terry Caldwell... I really have a difficult situation because I have seven or eight guys that are pretty good..."

This is not to say that RayRay should be the first guy off the bench, but it is noteworthy that he was mentioned so immediately when up to this point, his name has not been tossed around by Freeze or Wommack at all.

It's also noteworthy that Tayler Polk continues to earn mentions from the staff. The 5'11 (generous), 218-pound sophomore walk-on actually looked pretty good during the Boise State game last fall, after Serderius Bryant was ejected due to targeting. Note to college football players everywhere: if your immediate backup is a freshman walk-on, maybe don't go banging your head on defenseless players' heads, k? It remains to be seen whether or not Polk has reached his ceiling, but even if we've seen his potential, he should continue to contribute a handful of tackles each year.

Temario Strong will be similarly counted on to contribute to special teams and add tackles here and there.

With JUCO signee Terry Caldwell, I haven't been able to get a good idea of his anticipated impact. Coaches have mentioned his name off and on, which is a red flag to me. Maybe Gates' progress has been to the detriment of Caldwell...

One name that Wommack didn't mention recently was incoming freshman Shawn Curtis. Whether or not the aforementioned depth has forced Curtis into a likely redshirt remains unclear. The 2015 signee from Miami certainly contributes great size to the position, and the need for that size may make itself apparent as the season wears on. It's also possible that another signee (maybe Armani Linton) could get a look at linebacker, since the Rebels failed to sign a Stinger out of the high school ranks in 2015.

What to expect

Of the three departing linebackers, none possessed elite athleticism; all were great tacklers and were assignment-sound. All acted as role players in a defense otherwise littered with elite talent. Is that what the Landshark D needed? Could an injection of athleticism and playmaking ability, even at the expense of some experience, boost the Rebel D?

Here's my prediction: C.J. Johnson fills in effectively for D.T. Shackleford. I expect to see a boost in big-play ability there. At Stinger, we may see increased big-play ability too, but I think that Bird Bryant's speed, aggression, and consistent tackling ability will be hard to replace. Nkemdiche and Gates may allow more broken tackles and missed angles, but may make more plays in coverage and/or blitzing.