Depth has been talked about extensively this offseason, as Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze is trying to build a strong enough depth chart to compete in the brutal Southeastern Conference Western Division.
The biggest change in depth from a year ago to today has to be at linebacker, which surprisingly hasn’t seen the increase in depth due to top-notch recruiting like multiple other positions.
Instead, it’s been players coming on to the scene, guys returning from injury and others progressing after three years in the program.
The two biggest returners at linebacker are senior Mike Marry, the 2013 Chucky Mullins Courage Award winner, and sophomore Denzel Nkemdiche. Marry and Nkemdiche were two of the top three tacklers last season.
Marry, who has 21 starts at middle linebacker over the past two seasons, had 78 total tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and one interception last year. Nkemdiche, who started every game at stinger linebacker in 2012, had a team-high 82 total tackles, 13 tackles for loss, three sacks and three interceptions in a surprise redshirt freshman campaign that made him a fan favorite and earned him Freshman All-America honors.
The emergence of Nkemdiche undoubtedly gave the Rebels a boost in linebacker depth they didn’t expect, but the progression of juniors Keith Lewis and Serderius Bryant and return of senior D.T. Shackelford from injury gives Ole Miss several options at the main two linebacker positions.
Shackelford returned to action in spring practice for the first time in two years after being sidelined with an ACL injury. It remains to be seen if Shackelford can get back to his old form, but a good showing in spring drills had to give the coaching staff optimism. He will help both at middle linebacker and slide down to defensive end on passing downs.
Lewis, who will be in the rotation at middle linebacker, is poised for a big 2013 after taking a big step forward in the second half of the season and taking strides in spring practice. Last year, the 6-foot-1, 235-pounder tallied 22 tackles.
Bryant is another player looking to be more consistent for Ole Miss. The backup stinger played in all 13 games a year ago, racking up 28 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss.
Redshirt freshman Temario Strong will also look to get into the rotation at linebacker after redshirting in 2012. Strong, who is 6-foot, 240 pounds, can play at linebacker and defensive end, which will give him more opportunity to get into the game. The South Panola product impressed the coaching staff in spring practice and should contribute in some way this year.
After being one of the weaknesses heading into 2012, the depth that has been built at linebacker has produced a strong unit on the defensive side of the ball going into the 2013 season.
If Shackelford is the player he was before the injury, Ole Miss will be in really good shape because that will likely put Marry, a two-year starter, coming off the bench. The consistency of Lewis and Bryant are also keys to improving the strength of the middle of the Rebel defense.
It remains to be seen if Nkemdiche can outdo his spectacular freshman year, but there’s little doubt he will be a playmaker once again.
The biggest thing this unit gives to the defense is leadership. Shackelford is one of the best leaders to wear the red and blue the past few years, and being back on the field will only make his words mean even more. Marry leads with his play, but also has the ability to be vocal. And everyone knows how outspoken Nkemdiche can be with his teammates.
All three will be huge in keeping guys’ heads up as they go through their early stretch of the schedule.
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