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Ole Miss needs disciplined linebacker play to slow down Dalvin Cook

If the Rebels can’t maintain gap integrity at the second level, Florida State’s electric running back will be hard to stop.

Florida v Florida State Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

When Oregon State graduate transfer Rommel Mageo announced back in March that he was relocating to Ole Miss to finish his college football career, the assumption was that he’d arrive as the immediate replacement for C.J. Johnson at middle linebacker. Mageo was, after all, a multiyear starter in Corvallis who led the Beavers in tackles last season. Heading into Monday’s opener against Florida State, however, Mageo and fellow transfer Detric Bing-Dukes are still stuck behind DeMarquis Gates on the depth chart.

Ole Miss would prefer to slide Gates back to his natural home at outside linebacker, but the transfers—both of whom signed too late to attend spring practice—haven’t picked up the new defensive system as fast as was hoped.

“Rommel and Detric are having to learn a whole new scheme in a short period of time,” defensive coordinator Dave Wommack told reporters during fall camp. “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. They’re progressing.”

Mageo will see playing time against Florida State, but Ole Miss is putting experience on the field first (Terry Caldwell, who will start at the outside backer spot while Gates mans the middle, played in every game last season and started three). That’s probably because...

FSU’s Dalvin Cook, more so than any running back in the country, can make linebackers pay for being out of position.

Before we get to how he makes them pay, though, we need to understand why those linebackers are out of position in the first place. That’s simple: he’s so damn quick, they have to cheat to the play-side to have any hope of catching him. Check out this clip against Louisville: the defender is in fine position... and then Cook jets his ass.

That’s a safety starting wide of the tackle box, so you can imagine how anxious an interior linebacker gets when he starts thinking about Cook beating him to a spot.

That’s when Cook cuts it back.

Florida State runs a lot of zone blocking schemes, which get most of the offensive linemen—and by extension the defense—moving in the same play-side direction. Jimbo Fisher will frequently mix in counters, where Cook takes the handoff on the play side, then jams his foot into the ground and cuts back against the grain looking for creases vacated by overaggressive defenders.

Here’s SB Nation’s Ian Boyd breaking down one such play:

The inside zone runs that aim for the cutback are some of the most deadly in Cook’s arsenal:

Once he’s loose on the second level, changing directions and blowing up angles, Cook is especially tough to stop. He’s lethal on zone schemes because he can threaten to win either edge, and then it’s off to the races.

Here, the weak outside linebacker for Louisville is left unblocked, but he’s too far inside and with his shoulders turned the wrong way. That’s all Cook needs, and then it’s a race. Cook wins races.

Vacate a gap and Cook will find it.

Working in Ole Miss’ favor is that its athletic, aggressive defensive tackles should be able to shoot gaps and disrupt Cook before he can get a head of steam (particularly if Florida State is down its starting center). But when creases do inevitably open up, the Rebels need their linebackers to be waiting on the other side. Cook is one of the best open-field runners in the country, which, combined with Ole Miss’s inexperience at safety and apparent tackling issues, will make him deadly if he can get through to the second level on Monday. Maintaining gap integrity at the linebacker position will be key in preventing that.