An underwhelming showing by the Ole Miss defense in the first half against Southern Illinois and a complete collapse under the weight of Alabama’s talented offense had many Rebel fans discouraged and calling for changes in personnel. However, in the middle of the defense, several young linebackers have flashed potential and stepped up after being thrown into the spotlight almost immediately.
“That’s why I came to Ole Miss: to help the linebackers out,” freshman linebacker Jacquez Jones said. “That’s what I’m trying to do to put us in a better situation to help win games.”
The trio of Jones, freshman Kevontae’ Ruggs and sophomore Mohamed “Momo” Sanogo offers a glimpse into the future of the Ole Miss defense. Jones was one of three true freshmen on the defense to receive meaningful playing time on Saturday and recorded a team-leading nine total tackles. Fellow true freshman Keidron Smith led the team in solo tackles, with five. Ruggs received the start at outside linebacker and recorded four total tackles, and Sanogo had three solo tackles among his total of four.
“I like the way (Jones) is playing,” head coach Matt Luke said. “He doesn’t mind contact. He has a nose for the football. (He) just has to kind of, you know, read and diagnose things a little bit faster, but I think that will come with time.”
While experience does lead to improvement for the inexperienced group, the current iteration of the Ole Miss defense is statistically one of the worst in the nation. Three weeks into the season, the defense ranks 126th out of 129 FBS teams, and it has allowed 6.27 yards per play, despite playing an FCS team and a Texas Tech team that lacked its starting quarterback for a majority of the game. Luke acknowledged the difficulty of relying on true freshmen and sophomores to fulfill the sky-high expectations of an SEC defense.
“The issue is (that) they’re not playing against the same schemes every week,” Luke said. “It’s the same defensive calls, but they have to relate to different things. So that just comes with experience … there are some growing pains there.”
Jones echoed Luke’s statements and touched on the struggles that arise during the transition from tackling high school players to likely first-round draft picks in less than a year.
“The big adjustment is staying on film. In high school, you could just go out there and play,” Jones said. “When you watch film, it helps you out a lot because it slows the game down.”
Though the young linebackers have recently seen a lot of playing time, upperclassmen — who, as a result of this, haven’t received as much — have acted as mentors on and off the field, which has been a source of support for the young players.
“(Senior linebacker Detric) Bing-Dukes and (junior linebacker) Willie (Hibbler), they help me out a lot,” Jones said. “At first my eyes were big, and I didn’t know what I was doing. But they kind of took me in and showed me what to do, how to learn and all of that, so it helped me out a lot.”
Ruggs and Jones are both Alabama natives, and their relationship dates back to their participation on the 2017 Alabama High School All-Star team. The chemistry they developed then extends to Oxford today, and it has helped with their adjustments to the faster pace of the college game.
“When we’re out there, we kind of have chemistry, so we know what each other is going to do,” Jones said.