Almost exactly nine months before Ole Miss is scheduled to depart for Orlando to face the most explosive running back in the country, Hugh Freeze was wrapping up yet another National Signing Day that had failed to land a reliable linebacker prospect. Five-star linebacker Mique Juarez, who at one point was thought to have Ole Miss as his leader, left a Rebels hat on the table and signed with UCLA. Less than two hours before, four-star JUCO David Luafatasaga had abruptly backed out of his year-long commitment to Ole Miss and flipped to Utah. That all came a year after five-star Leo Lewis jumped ship for Mississippi State in the 11th hour.
The misses on the recruiting trail combined with the departures of C.J. Johnson (who was himself forced by lack of depth to make a position change last season), Denzel Nkemdiche and Christian Russell had the linebacker depth chart looking rough in February—starting outside backer DeMarquis Gates was the only one on the roster with experience at the position.
And then Freeze started knocking on the door of every transfer linebacker candidate in the country. Oregon State graduate transfer Rommel Mageo, who led the Beavers in tackles last season, inked in early March. The next day, the Rebs dipped into the JUCO ranks for Detric Bing-Dukes, a former four-star who signed with Georgia out of high school. In May, former Syracuse DE/OLB hybrid Qaadir Sheppard announced his move to Oxford (though he’ll have to sit out a transfer season).
And just like that, the Rebels could field a talented—albeit thin—linebacking corps in 2016.
The transfers aren’t ready just yet, though.
Most folks had Mageo walking onto campus and into the starting middle backer job (even Freeze said “We feel he may be the guy,” back in March). But both his and Bing-Dukes’ late transfers meant they missed spring practice, and they’ve struggled to catch up with Dave Womack’s 4-2-5 system in the fall.
“Rommel and Detric are having to learn a whole new scheme in a short period of time,” defensive coordinator Wommack told The Clarion-Ledger. “It all just starts to run together for them a little bit. They’ve come a long way. (But they’re) not fitting as well as I’d like them to. They’re not cutting it loose like I want them to yet because they’re feeling things and learning the defense.”
Mageo and Bing-Dukes were listed as second and third, respectively, at middle backer on the depth chart released Monday—behind DeMarquis Gates. The coaches would much prefer to leave Gates as the outside backer, where he became a breakout star late last season, but Mageo’s learning curve has necessitated Gates play the Mike. In the meantime, 2015 JUCO transfer Terry Caldwell will start outside.
Gates could have a big year.
It’s easy to forget that Gates didn’t just materialize out of the fog of the Denzel Nkemdiche incident—he was actually just five tackles behind Denzel for the team lead when he took over as the starter for the LSU game in late November. Gates exploded for 14 tackles in that game (helping to limit Leonard Fournette to his second lowest per-carry average of the season) and finished with the team lead in that category.
Exceptionally athletic with great lateral range, Gates is a perfect fit for the stinger spot (what Wommack calls his lone outside backer position)—which is why it’d be nice to have him there to help contain Dalvin Cook on Labor Day. At 211 pounds, Gates is also a bit undersized, which is one reason the coaches would prefer to have the 233-pound Mageo manning the middle. That shouldn’t necessarily be a problem against an Florida State zone blocking scheme that relies on speed and angles more so than brute-force frontal assault, but that changes in Week 3 when Bama comes to town. I’d guess that Freeze has Sept. 17 circled as his goal for having Mageo moved into a starting role.
Either way, Gates should be one of the SEC’s more dynamic defensive playmakers this season.
The depth is thin.
As long as Mageo can make his way onto the first team, Ole Miss will field a pretty solid two-deep at linebacker, with Caldwell and Bing-Dukes providing rotational snaps. But the recent recruiting struggles haven’t left much behind them. Tayler Polk wasn’t even rated out of high school by the crootin services; seniors Ray Ray Smith and Temario Strong have a combined 28 career tackles; coaches have been impressed by freshman Willie Hibbler, but he’s a high school tight end still transitioning to a new position.
That depth will be tested by an unforgiving schedule that features three of the country’s best running backs in the opening month and back-to-back trips to Fayetteville and Baton Rouge in mid-October.
The top of the linebacker depth chart should be better than we ever imagined it could be back in February. But until the recruiting improves (Freeze is off to a good start—2017 four-star Willie Gay is currently committed), depth will continue to be an issue.