As Wesley McGriff progresses through his first spring practice as Ole Miss’ defensive coordinator, there’s no bigger priority than fixing the team’s linebacker situation.
Simply put, last season’s group of linebackers was historically bad. As an eight-man unit, they manufactured a grand total of two turnovers in 12 games. Their struggles to tackle and fill running lanes was the biggest factor in the Rebel defense finishing last in the SEC in rushing defense. The low point came in the Egg Bowl, when Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald lumbered for 250 yards on just 14 carries. Things were truly grim, and it came as no surprise when defensive coordinator Dave Wommack (who doubled as the linebacker coach) left his post after the blowout loss to State.
Following last season’s disaster, Hugh Freeze promised to make the position a priority this off-season, and so far he’s followed through. Here are three reasons the position should improve in 2017.
1. McGriff’s new defense should make things easier on the linebackers.
Shortly after being hired, the Rebels’ new defensive coordinator announced he would transition from Wommack’s 4-2-5 to a 4-3, putting an extra linebacker on the field. A significant factor in last season’s struggles was the fact that the 4-2-5 defense asks a lot of its linebackers—having just two on the field requires speed and versatility more than sheer power and bigger guys like Detric Bing-Dukes and Rommel Mageo struggled to adjust. With three linebackers instead of two, there’s less ground to cover and assignments should become easier. Coach McGriff has already expressed his desire to simplify the defense and focus more on technique rather than schemes, an emphasis that should benefit the younger guys trying to adjust to SEC football.
2. There’s a lot of new talent.
McGriff isn’t the only new name on the defensive staff—former LSU assistant Bradley Dale Peveto came aboard in December to coach the linebackers. Known as an ace recruiter in Baton Rouge, Peveto promptly helped Freeze land five quality ‘backers on National Signing Day.
The player at the top of that list, four-star Breon Dixon, probably won’t be playing true linebacker. Weighing just 218 pounds when he showed up on campus as an early enrollee, he’s spent spring practice working at the star position, the new name for the safety-linebacker hybrid spot formerly known as husky. The fact that Dixon is an outside ‘backer by trade could give McGriff the flexibility to make mid-game shifts from a 4-2 to a 4-3 without making a personnel change.
The other notable newcomer is Northeast Mississippi Community College transfer Brenden Williams, who’s been taking first-team reps at outside linebacker and is the favorite to start opposite DeMarquis Gates. At 6’3 and 235 pounds, Williams has the size to provide sturdy run support against power teams in the SEC West, and his JUCO experience gives him an early leg up on the freshmen.
The remaining members of the recruiting class haven't made it to campus yet, but Freeze has publicly praised the unit as one of the most promising position groups in the 2017 class. Three-star Mohamed Sanogo is a potential starter in the middle and three-star Josh Clarke will likely be an early contributor on the outside. Zikkerion Baker, an undersized but athletic prospect Freeze has compared to former safety standout Mike Hilton, rounds out the group of newcomers.
After years of missing on linebacker talent, Ole Miss finally has reinforcements.
3. DeMarquis Gates is back.
While Ole Miss waits for its talented youngsters to develop, Gates remains the only proven commodity on the depth chart. Extremely athletic with great instincts and reliable tackling ability, he emerged as a playmaker late in the 2015 season. His first full year as a starter in 2016 was a bit rocky, but he still managed to post a team-leading 76 in tackles despite the dearth of talent around him and a one-game suspension. Gates is back on the practice field after off-season knee surgery and should start at one of the outside positions.
"[Gates] been extremely sharp in our OTA meetings," Peveto told The Clarion-Ledger at the beginning of spring workouts. "He's one of our leaders. He's trying to lead. He's learned how to lead."
The other returning starter is Bing-Dukes, a former JUCO transfer who alternately showed flashes of potential and looked downright lost in 2016. Spring practice reports have him running with the ones at middle linebacker, but look for him to be challenged for playing time by Sanogo, Donta Evans and Willie Hibbler, the former of which has reportedly put a rough freshman season behind him and is getting extensive first-string reps.
Here’s our best guess at an opening day depth chart:
|DeMarquis Gates||Detric Bing-Dukes||Brenden Williams|
|Josh Clarke||Donta Evans||Willie Hibbler|
|Tayler Polk||Mohamed Sanogo||Ray Ray Smith|
2016’s group of linebackers was one of the worst in recent memory, and while offseason changes have rightfully been made, it’s still unclear as to to how these changes will translate to the field. Perhaps for now it’s best that Rebel fans keep their expectations low and hope for a promising showing out of the incoming recruiting class. After all, they can’t be worse than last year, right?