LB: Strength Of Defense?

Last year, the Ole Miss linebacking unit was thin in terms of players LB Coach Tom Allen "trusted." This spring, that number swelled and the LBs emerged as perhaps the strength of the Reb defense for 2013. Part II of a ten-part series.

Spring training is all about player development - mentally and physically.

With that thought in mind, nobody in the Rebel football camp could be more pleased than Linebackers Coach Tom Allen.

"We needed to see progression from year one to year two. Getting the front set, playing with good technique, knowing all the things you need to know to be a quality linebacker - those were some of the things we worked on and I was pleased with the progress shown," said Allen. "The guys have taken the ownership of all of that now.

"The effort was really good. I had to search hard to find a loaf when grading practice film. That's a great thing to see - they have bought in. All of them come in and watch film on their own."

The main reason for the total buy-in, according to Allen, is easy to pinpoint.

"Competition," he said. "Competition makes everyone better. I went through every single guy and every single one of them has improved since the Compass Bowl in the weight room and in their learning curve.

"They have all reduced their body fat, but increased their body weight. They all look a step quicker. They are all much more confident. Bottom line, they are better football players than they were a year ago. They are all playing physical."

At Mike LB, returning starter Mike Marry gets the nod out of spring training.

"He has kind of separated himself," noted Tom. "He's the leader of the linebackers and of the defense as a whole. I love the way he cares about this program. He cares about being good. He takes care of the little stuff and he is finally healthy and has his body right for the first time since we have been here and before that, I have been told.

Mike Marry
File Photo

"We are still working on his speed and quickness, but he addresses that on a daily basis and has shown improvement. He's a step quicker and in great shape. His hamstrings and feet are finally healthy. We just need to get him to keep working on his short-area quickness for him to live his next-level dream."

Keith Lewis is next in line. You will recall, Lewis missed all of last spring and took about half of the 2012 season to really catch up from missing that spring session.

"There are a lot of ways Keith can help us. We needed him to step up and he did," Allen continued. "He can do things physically that some of the other guys can't. He's our best combination - speed and size - that we have. He's gotten quicker. He will be our specialist - the third-down guy, a starter when we go to our money package (three down linemen and two LBs) and the starting Wolf when we go 4-3. He's got a critical role for us. It's the same role Joel Kight had last year. We use those packages a lot.

"He's got the base stuff we do down pat. Now the challenge is to be able to pick up the different things we do each week when we are gameplanning. He's got to be able to make the calls each week in games and master those."

Making his comeback from two years off, D.T. Shackelford has made a solid and good impression on Allen in spring.

"I never questioned his heart, preparation or passion. It was all about the knee and how it would hold up," Allen assessed. "He has been a pleasant surprise. He moves much better than any of us thought he would. That was hurdle number one. He showed no hesitation. Number two, he had to learn the defense. He told me it's different sitting in the meetings from having live bullets fired at him so he has been putting in a bunch of extra time to learn the system.

"He gives us so much energy and cares so much. He is going to help this team. He is such a leader. As his knee continues to get better and better, his role will expand. With the pace our offense plays and the defensive system we play, you really need more capable players who will get quality time and D.T. has proven to me he will be one of those. Also we will use him in different areas, like rushing the passer from DE sometimes."

Temario Strong, who redshirted last year, also impressed Allen during spring.

' "Temario may have improved more than anyone in my room," Allen noted. "He really finished spring strong in terms of understanding the defense. He wants to play, so he has put in the extra time in the film room.

"He can move. He can hit. He can finish plays. He will be vital on special teams and as he develops there could easily be a role for him at linebacker. He's done a great job this spring. He's going to help us as he gains more knowledge of the spring. He also has to learn to play lower, but he getting there."

Will Martin is another MLB who will help on special teams, as he did last year.

"Will is an effort guy who goes anything and everything you ask of him. He will help us on special teams and we know he will be full speed all the time," Allen said.

Junior Billy Busch will provide a valuable role on the scout team.

"He's a tremendous effort guy. Billy wants to go every rep. He will help us," stated Allen.

At Stinger, who else but Denzel Nkemdiche would be listed as the main man? After all, All-SEC is hard to unseat.

Denzel Nkemdiche
File Photo

"I'll be honest - after the success he had last season, I was wondering how he would handle it. Would he come back with the same desire and passion? The answer was a resounding yes. He's even hungrier and the chip on his shoulder to prove he can do it is even bigger," stated Allen. "He is so driven. He has such confidence. He believes he is The Man and that's why he plays so effectively at his size in this league.

"He's bigger now (from 202 to 212) and he has gotten faster, but what makes him special is that he reads things so quickly. He understands everything inside and out. He has the innate ability to see the whole field, read his keys and react so quickly it is amazing. His ability to react and change directions is even better than last year. He is our most valuable player on defense, in my opinion. He just has a knack for big plays. In our last scrimmage, he had four tackles for loss and a sack. You can't coach that."

Having said all that about Denzel, Allen is not slighting number two - Serderius Bryant.

"He's a quality football player. Denzel has rubbed off on him. Bird has worked extremely hard and it shows. He's a step faster and he has learned the system," added Tom. "He's flying around and making a mark on this team. His burst to the ball is impressive, not much different than Denzel. He's also a great tackler - he rarely misses one. He's finally in good shape and that is showing as well. I am very pleased with the growth he is showing. Last year, he freelanced too much, but this spring, we have seen very little of that. He is growing up. If he will keep learning the calls and the system, he can go from being a good player to a great player."

Martavious Newby, who played on the hoops team, came out for a few days as well.

"He looks the part, but he was not with us enough to get a real evaluation. Athletically, he's a no-doubter, but he's so raw. I wish I had gotten a better look at him in spring, but his class schedule hurt that process," Allen said.

Transfer Colton Walls and walk-on Josh Gregory didn't get many system reps in spring, but they went through individual drills to get their feet wet.

"Colton has athletic ability. I'm just getting to know him. He can run, tackle and he's bright. It's just a time thing with him for now," closed Allen. "Josh is doing some good things. He will hit you and he's eager."

Analysis: DC Dave Wommack considers linebacker the strength of the Rebel defense. There's star potential, there's depth and there's a better understanding of the system and the assignments than a year ago. Who are we to argue?

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