Depth Developing

Too many times in the past two years, Linebackers Coach Tom Allen has looked at the bench and perplexed as to what to do next. While not empty, the LB bench was, at the very least, somewhat lonely. Now, some depth is developing and Allen is feeling better about his positions.

"One is the loneliest number that you'll ever do. Two can be as bad as one, it's the loneliest number since the number one." – Three Dog Night, circa 1969.

While it wasn't as bad as all that, the Ole Miss linebacker group the past two years has been on the thin side, either from injury, inexperience or premature comebacks.

After spring training 2014, LB Coach Tom Allen believes things, depth-wise, are looking up for his troops.

"In year three, our goal was to develop more depth and to challenge the older guys to take the next step," said Allen. "For the most part, those things were accomplished. With (MLB) Mike Marry graduating, the pressure was on the guys at that position to step up and with Denzel (Nkemdiche) suspended for now, we needed the same at Stinger."

Middle linebacker – the hub of the defense, the guy who calls all the plays and directs traffic. The guy who has to know, for all intents and purposes, 11 positions and make sure all of them are in synch.

"D.T. Shackelford has stepped up in a big way. He has set himself apart with his knowledge of the defense and he has caught on to what we are trying to do and his role in that," Allen said. "In fairness to Deterrian, last year he didn't really have a chance because he was coming back from major knee issues and we kept moving him from LB to DE. It was hard for him to hone in.

Keith Lewis
Petre Thomas

"Now, he is tuned in and I think he is physically a lot better than he was all of 2013. He's become a vocal leader who leads in the right way. He had an excellent spring and that's why he won the Chucky Mullins Courage Award. "

JUCO transfer Christian Russell and sophomore Temario Strong also made positive strides in spring training.

"Christian has excellent athletic ability and he showed that in flashes, but he's still got a lot to learn. It's a little too much to ask, for him to come in and get it all down in a spring but he made progress and he has a bright future. If he will study film this summer and be ahead of where he was at the end of spring, he will make big strides in August. It might be a couple of games in the season before he is completely comfortable, but all of that is on him right now," added Allen. "Also, Temario made a lot of progress mentally. He changed his body in the offseason and looks a step quicker and he's getting everything down pat more and more.

"I feel good about the direction of middle linebacker and where we left off in spring. We throw a lot at them in spring ball. In August, we will go back through it all again and the second time around, things will start to click more and more and they will become even more valuable."

At Stinger, the Rebs were without Denzel Nkemdiche, who was/is suspended from the team, but two veterans and two second-year players held down the position nicely.

"Now that we have been able to leave Keith Lewis at one position, and not ask him to play all three LB slots, he has been able to hone in as well and he had a productive spring. He was solid and dependable all spring," Allen said. "Bird (Serderius Bryant) was Bird – solid every day. He did a great job for us coming back from being suspended. I am very encouraged by the way he is handling his situation on and off the field. He's starting to show some leadership and doing the little things off the field that will propel him to a fine senior season."

The second-year guys – Ray Ray Smith and Tayler Polk – are in the developmental stages of their career, but Allen is pleased with the potential they showed in spring training.

"Rayshawn has all the physical tools you want. He's got speed, length and athleticism. He just needs to have a good offseason to get stronger, play more physical when he gets his chances and continue to learn the system," said Allen. "Tayler just makes plays, all over the place. He's doing a great job for us. He's got a knack for the position and, like Ray Ray, just needs to keep coming on strong."

Ray Ray Smith
Petre Thomas

The bonus for Allen, who also doubles as the Special Teams Coordinator, is that all of the aforementioned linebackers are expected to impact all the special teams, another area the Rebels have been thin in the past couple of years.

"With depth, you are able to have more special teams' bodies to work with, which will help that cause tremendously," Allen closed. "The twos and threes should be all over special teams, and the starters should contribute there as well. Temario, Tayler, Keith, Chrisitan, RayRay should be all over the special teams."

Overview: Like several other positions on the Rebel squad, competition was fierce in spring and, as a result, it brought out the best – for 15 days – in all the LB candidates. And like many other positions on the team in spring, they brought "it" every day. Shackelford is on track to be one of the most influential leaders to play at Ole Miss, period. His personality will continue to drive the whole LB room. When Denzel comes back, that will add one more proven and tested player. There is no reason to be anything but optimistic at this juncture about the LB corps.

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