As the anticipation intensifies leading up to the team’s trip to NRG Stadium in Houston, so do the questions regarding the defense, specifically the linebackers.
The defense as a whole has been underwhelming in recent memory, but defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff, in his second stint at Ole Miss, is hopeful that his linebackers can strengthen the defense rather than weaken it.
The loss of DeMarquis Gates, who led the team with 114 total tackles in 2017, will be a big blow on and off the field for the Rebels. With his departure, the linebacking core now features only two upperclassmen among a slew of freshmen and sophomores.
One of those upperclassmen, junior Willie Hibbler, is poised to take up a leadership role in the linebackers’ room. Hibbler has appeared in 10 games in his Ole Miss career, recording a total of 22 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss. Although his numbers may not jump off of the page, he was named as one of the starting outside linebackers on Monday, and coaches are optimistic he can be a difference-maker this year.
“He knows what to do,” head coach Matt Luke said. “He is improving because of the competition.”
Sophomore Mohamed “Momo” Sanogo will also see a lot of time on the field during the 2018 season. Coaches have been impressed with his performance during fall camp and announced that he would start against Texas Tech on Saturday. After playing in only five games in 2017 and finishing with eight total tackles, he has a lot of room for improvement as a starter.
“When you look at Momo, this guy has got a strong football IQ,” McGriff said. “He has really done a tremendous job this off-season of changing his body. His focus is a lot better, and right now he’s gonna be in the right spot, more often than not. He’s got the size to get in there and anchor it. Now he’s just got to continue to prove his play strength.”
Lining up beside Sanogo will be true freshman Kevontae’ Ruggs. The Alabama native has shown his ability to fly around the field and make plays on a consistent basis in camp, which has landed him a starting position.
“He is just a natural football player,” McGriff said. “He’ll make some freshman mistakes, but we’ve got to live with it. He’ll make more plays than he gives up. The biggest asset for Kevontae’ Ruggs is having Momo next to him.”
Behind Hibbler, Sanogo and Ruggs are two freshmen, Luke Knox and Josh Clarke, who are also fighting for playing time and will almost certainly see the field at some point this season. The true freshman Knox, brother of tight end Dawson Knox, has a lot of potential with his 6-foot-3, 227-pound frame.
Clarke, a 4-star recruit in 2017 according to ESPN, also has the potential to be a successful linebacker. The Louisiana native was redshirted last season, which gave him an opportunity to gain experience under veterans and learn McGriff’s defense.
“The Landshark defense is back — that’s all I’m gonna say,” Clarke said. “I just hope we have a good season together.”
With the linebacker’s past performance in mind, the young Rebels have nowhere to go but up. Coach McGriff is confident in his players’ abilities; it’s just up to them to execute the game plan and communicate with each other out on the field.
“We’ve talked all summer about how a noisy defense is a good defense,” McGriff said. “We just want to make sure we’re giving them confidence that carries over to game time.”
To read more analysis of each Rebel position group, visit our Rebel Roll Call section.