A comeback, a solid senior, a JUCO signee, a reprieve from a suspension, a better student and a couple of redshirts surfacing have given the Ole Miss linebacking corps a better look through three days of spring training, according to LB Coach Tom Allen.

The early signs of Coach Tom Allen's Rebel linebackers lead one to believe that despite Mike Marry's graduation and Denzel Nkemdiche's spring - plus the first game of 2014 - suspension, the Ole Miss LBs will be a sound, deeper unit next season.

"It's taken us some time, but we finally have some good competition out there. I think we have three or four guys at each position who can be physical and can run to the ball well," said Allen. "It's good to have some more quality out there to create some competition and pressure to perform in practice."

Probably the most intriguing story in the group is senior Deterrian - formerly D.T. - Shackelford being moved back to middle linebacker after playing defensive end the latter part of last season.

"There is no question he is moving better than he was last year. Not all of that is physical. Some of it is that he now has a very good grasp of the defense," he stated. "In all fairness to him, we bounced him around a lot last year and he didn't get a chance to hone in on LB. In the offseason, he spent a lot of time in the film room getting up to speed and it shows in his play so far.

"Also, I think he is physically moving better in year two after his double ACL surgeries. We are seeing him make plays he wasn't capable of making last year because his movement has picked up as that knee has loosened up.

Serderius Bryant
File Photo

"I'm very excited about what he's been doing so far. He is also one of our leaders, which we need in our room. As he gets more and more comfortable with his play, he is becoming more and more comfortable as a leader."

Also battling at middle linebacker are sophomore Temario Strong, who did yeoman's work on special teams last year, and JUCO transfer Christian Russell.

"Christian is a guy who brings excellent athleticism and he's physical. It's just a matter of him learning the defense. I think he will show improvement daily," said Allen. "In team situations, he's thinking a lot. In one-on-one situations, his athleticism comes out. He will strike you.

"Temario is a guy we always knew had the physical tools, he just had to learn the defense. He has been coming in before practice and watching extra film and that's what it is going to take for him to get to the next level. He had a really good offseason in the weight room. He's leaner and his movement is better."

Outside, there was concern that Allen would be a little handcuffed with the suspension of Denzel Nkemdiche, but the presence of veteran, and last year's leading tackler, Serderius Bryant, the early look of redshirt Ray Ray Smith and the emergence of redshirt walk-on Taylor Polk have given that position some "ummph" in spring training thus far.

Serderius, who is also under a suspension for an offseason incident, appears to be taking his "second chance" seriously.

"He's done everything we have asked him to do and has attacked the first three spring practices the way we wanted him to," he noted. "I'm very pleased with the way he is trying to lead. He's the first guy in line for drills and he's getting after it, which is what we needed to see him do. I love Bird, but he needed a wake up call. I think he's learned a valuable lesson and we are going to keep teaching him to be a better man.

"Ray Ray just has to learn the defense and become a little more physical. It's coming, but he's not where I need him yet. A lot of being more physical has to do with knowing what you are doing. Once he becomes more comfortable in the system, I think he will naturally become more physical. I am pleased with his progress."

As for Polk, Allen is trying to get him more practice reps so he can blossom.

"We really have high expectations for him. He's very bright. He knows the defense. At the very least, he's going to be a big part of our special teams this year," Allen assessed. "You just never know. He's got speed, intelligence and he'll hit you."

Senior Keith Lewis seems to be the wild card in the equation. He's the first-team Stinger LB and the third-down specialist at MLB.

"We'd like to expand his role from last year some. He can play Stinger when we go to three linebackers and he can fill in at middle on passing downs," Allen continued. "He's valuable to us, but much like Deterrian last year, we moved Keith around a lot and he never got honed in. We expect him to step up and get more action his final year."

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