"I think it's one of the strengths right now, not only at outside linebacker but inside linebacker," said Mendenhall. "Those guys will make up the core of special teams as well, so it is one of the strengths of our team."
"We've worked as hard as we can in the offseason," Brandon Ogletree said. "I think one thing that has really elevated our position is how much passion, emotion and intensity we bring to the field. Our saying is, ‘As we go, so does the defense.' We feel like we have to come out every single day and do what we do, because if we don't, we feel that overall performance of the defense will be reflected by how well we do."
Ogletree, a junior, is the starting Buck linebacker. He played in nine games in 2009 and 11 games in 2010. But when Ogletree was nursing a minor injury during fall camp, Spencer Hadley filled in as the primary backup, followed by Aveni Leung-Wai.
"Well, when I was out and Spencer Hadley was in, there wasn't much of a drop-off," Ogletree said. "I might have a lot more experience, but when Spencer Hadley was in for me there was no drop-off in playing hard, emotion, intensity and in being assignment-sound. There was no drop-off."
Uona Kaveinga has held down the starting Mike linebacker spot with Austen Jorgensen filling in behind him. Additionally, Tyler Beck has returned to the Mike linebacker position after nursing a knee injury.
"We're six-deep between those two positions," said Ogletree. "I believe when Coach Mendenhall talks about the strength of our middle linebackers, he's talking about the overall quality of player and depth we really have there. I think he knows how much time we've put in to become better and he trusts us. The mantle to be team leaders is on our shoulders, so we've been studying film more to know more than anyone else."
One this is certain: when it comes to preparation, Ogletree and Kaveinga just might be the most prepared on the team. Over the summer, Ogletree spent a lot of time with Kaveinga, a film-junkie. Together, they scouted out film of Arkansas. There is good reason for this, even though the Cougars' first game is against the Ole Miss Rebels.
"They have a new offensive coordinator," Ogletree said about Ole Miss. "The personnel that we're watching is from Arkansas film because that's where their offensive coordinator is from, so we're not really keyed in to [the Rebels'] personnel so far."
Former Arkansas offensive coordinator David Lee was named the new Ole Miss offensive coordinator last January.
"You have to figure a lot of what he did there at Arkansas he's going to do at Ole Miss," Ogletree said. "This is basically me and Uona going in back in July and saying ‘Hey, let's see what we can expect from Ole Miss,' you know? I love watching film with him because we just go in there and eat it up, so all summer long that's what we did every day: we watched Arkansas film."
Still, that doesn't mean they will have a perfect grasp of the Rebels' offense.
"The difficulty right now is the uncertainty," Ogletree said. "Personnel-wise, we have to look at Ole Miss from last season, but as far as game stuff, we've looked at Arkansas. That's why we're focusing on us. We just have to come out ready to play."
Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that Ole Miss has yet to name a starting quarterback. One candidate, Randall Mackey, was arrested on Tuesday for disorderly conduct after a fight at a downtown Oxford bar that occurred early Tuesday morning.
Mackey was named an All-American at East Mississippi Community College in 2009 after throwing for 3,122 yards and 32 touchdowns as a sophomore. Other quarterbacks battling for the starting spot are junior Zack Stoudt and sophomore West Virginia transfer Barry Brunetti, who joined the team in January.
Ogletree contends that no matter who the Ole Miss quarterback might be, Coach Mendenhall is going to expose his inexperience.
"A young quarterback, I know Coach Mendenhall is going to want to eat him up," Ogletree said. "Our job in the front seven is to get them into second-and-long so we can pressure them and get them into third-and-predictable situations. That's what our focus is."
"It's hard because your team chemistry is certainly affected, and the continuity offensively is certainly affected, at least from what I learned a year ago," Mendenhall said about unsettled quarterback battles. "And while you still can play strong in your opener, which we did a year ago in fact to the point where I thought a two-quarterback system would work, the difficult part is sustaining it. So you might be able to for a time have a number of quarterbacks, but eventually I think you need one."
It's Ole Miss time!
While there has been some individual preparation for Ole Miss, the defense will begin focusing solely on the Rebel offense on Wednesday.
"Lots of film, lots of meetings and a little bit of install probably," Ogletree said about what's in store. "We'll come out here and have probably a 16-period practice. Tomorrow will be like a typical Monday practice day."
It appears the coaches are still mulling over who is going to take on kick return duties. Coach Mendenhall said that, as of Tuesday, Jordan Johnson and Mike Hague are the primary kick returners and J.D. Falslev is the primary punt returner.
Coach Mendenhall's reasoning for Johnson's role is simple.
"I ran the kickoff team a year ago and Jordan Johnson was always the scout kick returner and punt returner, and both units had a really hard time getting a hold of him," Mendenhall said. "We were just biding our time waiting for him to not redshirt and get out of his redshirt year. No one has seen it yet in a live game, but we've seen it enough in practice to where we think [he'll be successful], and the players believe in him too. So, we'll see."
Another possibility for punt returner is walk-on wide receiver Dallin Tollestrup. Tollestrup has been rising up among the receiver ranks and has had a very good fall camp thus far, both on offense and special teams.
"He's working his way and competing for a spot, not only at receiver but at returner, so he's kind of come from off the radar to being a consideration."