Linebackers have been the source of much heartache, woe, and general malaise in the last few seasons for Ole Miss Rebel fans.
The criticism may have stemmed from poor tackling, or it may just have been a fanbase looking for the worst part of the worst problem in the program — a defense that allowed four to five touchdowns per game on average.
Explanations regarding eye discipline, fits, and more simplification were repeated too many times over the last two seasons, and fans grew weary of a defense that seemed to always get worse no matter what coaches did.
If the linebackers were truly the biggest problem in the defense, the switch to a 3-4 should be potentially concerning as linebackers are relied upon heavily for gap assignments in several 3-4 looks.
DON’T WORRY THOUGH THERE’S A PLAN. Right? Guys, there’s a plan right?
It starts with the arrival of Lakia Henry (6’0, 235-pounds) to Oxford from Dodge City Community College. He has been slotted in as a starter at one of the inside linebacker positions where he tallied more than 180 tackles in the last two seasons of JUCO ball — good enough to get ranked the best inside linebacker in junior college by multiple recruiting services. Henry also played running back in high school, which to me signals his ability to read offensive blocking assignments and react off instinct quickly. To come in and immediately win a starting job, this is the sign of an improved corps of linebacker already.
Another new name set to make an impact from the first snap is Sam Williams — a junior college transfer out of Northeast Mississippi. At 6’3, 251-pounds, Williams was rated as the No. 7 junior college prospect in the nation, and he logged six tackles in the very important spring game called the Grove Bowl.
He notched 17.5 sacks(!!!!!) last season at NECC, and numbers like that can’t help but get the ole heart a pumpin’. I can envision Williams lining up just about anywhere in this 3-4 set and causing some confusion for opposing offenses in his first season in SEC play.
The returning players who have been slotted to start are MoMo Sanogo, Donta Evans and Qaadir Sheppard. MoMo (6’2, 244-pounds) is a Butkus Award watch list guy who racked up more than 100 tackles last season, good enough for fifth in the SEC. I had assumed he would be one of the leaders of this defense as a junior, but it seems Evans has been pushing him for playing time if depth charts are accurate. I think it’s very unlikely MoMo isn’t running the defensive side of the ball most of the season unless he’s battling an injury. Evans made four starts at linebacker in his redshirt freshman season but has battled some injuries in his first two seasons in Oxford.
Sheppard (6’3, 252-pounds) made ten starts on the DL last season after transferring in from Syracuse University. He posted the fifth highest number of tackles on the team last year, but he has bulked up a little in the last 12 months (up from 240-pounds). Potentially, with Williams and Sheppard in the line-up, you could almost see a hybrid 5-2 front if they both push up on the line of scrimmage with the three down linemen in clear running situations. It’s somewhat kind scary even!
Jacquez Jones, Vernon Dasher, Charles Wiley and Willie Hibbler will offer key veteran back-up roles with Wiley transitioning from defensive line to outside linebacker and Dasher from the defensive secondary to outside linebacker. Hibbler has past experience as a tight end and has been used to track the crossing routes in the past with some success. Jones in my opinion showed some serious flashes of talent last season and could push for a starting role later in the year.
So what we know for sure is that this linebacking corps has a two deep with enough experience it shouldn’t be out of place in SEC competition. There may still be a talent gap against the top tier, but this infusion of new talent and another year of growth for existing players in the central piece of this defense will produce results compared to previous seasons.
Back and better than ever in 2019
New faces in 2019