Opportunity Knocks

So much for a drama-free spring for Ole Miss linebackers coach Tom Allen.

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His top two players, Denzel Nkemdiche and Serderius Bryant, were suspended earlier this month following separate arrests. Their status for spring practices, which open March 5, is up in the air.

Bryant led Ole Miss last season with 78 total tackles. Nkemdiche battled injuries as a sophomore, appearing in 10 games, including six starts. He suffered a knee injury in the Rebels' season-opening win at Vanderbilt, and he didn't make his return until Alabama three weeks later. He finished 11th on the team with 35 tackles, one better than his brother, former top overall prospect and Ole Miss defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche.

"It does change some things," Allen said of the suspensions. "They're going to be held accountable for their actions. We love them both, but that's the way it's going to be. Bottom line is we've got to have some other young men step up. And in some ways it can be a great thing for these other guys to get the reps that they need to improve and to grow as players.

"Next man up is our mentality for whatever happens, whether it's an injury or anytime a player's not able to be with us for an extended period of time. We've got a good group of young guys that are anxious to have an opportunity, and I'm real excited to see who takes advantage of it."

Tom Allen
Chuck Rounsaville

One player sure to receive added reps is rising senior Keith Lewis. Allen said Lewis will transition from MIKE to STINGER in the spring. He saw action in all 13 games last year, one start, though his greatest contributions were on special teams.

"Keith's the guy that this is an opportunity for him," Allen said. "He's been our third-down MIKE and played on special teams as well. Keith is a very athletic linebacker for us, and this is going to be his senior season. Before we got here, in the previous system, he was a glorified strong safety kind of guy. He has the athleticism to play in space, and he will be moved to STINGER here for spring. I think that's going to be great for him; he needs reps. I'm anxious to see how he's able to take advantage of this opportunity to get better and better. He gives us some maturity there."

There are other candidates, as well. Former South Panola product Temario Strong "did some really good things" in spot duty and on special teams as a redshirt freshman, according to Allen, and the potential absences of Nkemdiche and Bryant afford him an opportunity to step up.

"He can run and hit," Allen said, while also mentioning redshirt freshman Ray Ray Smith and a few walk-ons as players he's excited to get an evaluation on in the coming weeks. "Those are his strengths, for sure. He just needs to learn the defense."

Same for mid-year enrollee Christian Russell, a four-star signee who last starred for East Mississippi Community College.

In his final season at EMCC, Russell was named NJCAA second team All-American. He helped lead the Lions to a 12-0 record and a national championship, posting 80 tackles, including seven tackles for loss and three sacks.

Christian Russell
File Photo

"Christian brings some maturity to us," Allen said of Russell, who the Rebels pulled away from Texas A&M. "You sit down with him one-on-one, he's just got a great demeanor. He's a real confident young man that's tough. Right now, he's trying to learn our system. Our weight room guys love him. He's got a tremendous work ethic and intensity in there.

"He can run and moves really well, so we think he's got a lot to offer. It's obviously up to him now to come here and master the defense this spring and refine that over the summer and come into the fall ready to help this team win. We're really excited about Christian. He's going to do all the little things that we ask him to do. That's why we brought him here. Our staff fell in love with him as we got to know him and just felt like he was a great fit for what we wanted to do and how we wanted to build it here."

Last but certainly not least is veteran D.T. Shackelford. Shackelford opted to return to Ole Miss in January, after weighing his NFL options. Shackelford missed two seasons due to knee injuries. A sixth year of eligibility followed his being a granted a medical hardship waiver.

Allen said Shackelford, looking to build off a 44-tackle season, provides flexibility for the staff with his ability to play both defensive end and linebacker.

"Obviously D.T. is a young man that gives us tremendous maturity and flexibility, being able to play defensive end and MIKE linebacker," Allen said. "I don't think I've ever seen a guy in the last two months work any harder than he has. It's encouraging to see. He's gotten a step quicker, I believe, even since last season. Just really on a mission to finish his last season here in a strong, strong way.

"D.T. is a guy that's going to give us some stability in a lot of ways. He's got a lot of maturity as a young man. His maturity is rare. I love his passion, and everyone in this program sees that."

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