Depth has been established at all three positions, and the competition for playing time has become a focal point in fall camp. Defensive coordinator/position coach Tyrone Nix is mainly credited for the unearthing and now faces the unenviable task of correctly rotating the deserving athletes.
Presently, Jonathan Cornell, Ashlee Palmer and Allen Walker are tops at their respective positions of Middle, weakside and strongside. The two-deep currently includes Tony Fein Patrick Trahan and Lamar Brumfield.
"It's an ongoing battle," Nix said. "We have a two-deep that is pretty solid with guys that are physical and can play linebacker. There are always things to work on, but I am pleased. They are progressing."
The most-heated competition lies in the middle with sophomore Cornell and senior Fein. The younger athlete has the upper hand, but the margin has lessened in the last couple days. Cornell, who is 100 percent after a shoulder/neck injury that cost the California native the 2007 season, has been described as a "human playbook" and is valuable due to being somewhat of a coach on the field. However, Fein has made substantial strides in that area.
"I expect the mike to be like the quarterback of the defense," Nix said. "Actually the more vocal guy of the two is Tony Fein. Tony makes a lot of checks. So does Cornell. It's just Cornell is not as vocal.
"Cornell doesn't make a lot of mistakes. Right there, I feel like I have two quality guys that could start if we played Memphis today."
Nix's comments regarding Fein are of major importance considering that the Washington native was dismissed from the team during the spring semester before being allowed to return prior to spring practice.
Fein earned considerable playing time and started five games last season, but an attitude problem needed to be corrected. From listening to Nix, those worries are no more.
"If he was going to be a part of this team, he was going to have to do a lot of things different," Nix said. "The first thing he had to do was gain his eligibility, which he did.
"He passed all his coursework in the spring and in the summer to allow him to play his senior year. In the past, he's probably been more of an individual a little bit. He's become more of a team guy, so yes, his attitude has changed and improved."
With the middle in good hands either way, Palmer will be alongside the winner – on one side or the other.
The Compton, Calif., product has been the Rebels' most consistent linebacker and has virtually assured himself of a starting spot. Currently at the weakside, Palmer has improved his tackling and is continually praised by Nix and head coach Houston Nutt.
Walker has battled back from a mild injury this week and continues to hold down the strongside slot, but Trahan's emergence on the other side could shift Palmer in front of Walker. The ability to pick and choose further emphasizes the Rebels' depth.
"(Trahan has) shown he has tremendous ability," Nix said. "He's still working to get into condition to play at this level on every snap. On the first day, he couldn't make it through individual drills. Now he's making it through practice. After that, we have to get him through the sprints. It's step-by-step.
"Maybe Ashlee could come over and play (strongside). Trahan is going to learn one position. You bring a new guy in and you let him get his feet wet at one position and learn the scheme and he's done well. So Ashlee would be a guy who plays both. Matter of fact, he did some of that last week."
The depth chart currently has Cassius Vaughn, Dustin Mouzon, Jamarca Sanford and Kendrick Lewis as starters in the secondary. The backups are Marshay Green, Jeremy McGee, Johnny Brown and Fon Ingram.
"We've got some bodies there. Right now, (Dustin) Mouzon and Cassius Vaughn, if we played Memphis tonight, would be our two starters. Then you have Marshay (Green), who we brought over from offense. He's running second-team and Jeremy McGee is running second-team, so we're four deep right there and then you have a couple of freshmen. Derrick Herman has rotated in there some and the junior college kid, Demareo Marr, has played there some. Then we have the kid from Hargrave, Marcus Temple, so we have bodies there. They just haven't played a whole lot, so we just have to get the best ones on the field together.
"Kendrick's the guy (at free safety). If you're watching practice, Kendrick is the guy and Johnny Brown is his backup, followed by Jared Mitchell. Fon (Ingram) has had a good camp have four quality players there that could potentially start anytime."
With Greg Hardy absent for a considerable amount of time, Nix has challenged the other ends to pick up the slack.
"It doesn't change (the defensive schemes) at all. We are going to do what we do. These guys have to respond to the challenge. Anytime you have a tremendous athlete taken out of the scheme, it is a negative, but we just have to go on and be productive.
Nix is pleased with Marcus Tillman inside, and although he could move back to end, the coordinator doesn't see that as a necessity.
"I think Tillman's smart enough to go back if we need him out there," Nix said. "I think he's found a home inside. He looks pretty good for us. I like him in there. He's quick. He's held his own in there and our (offensive) line is pretty big."
Peria Jerry returned to practice Thursday to bolster the defensive front, but Nix has also been excited about what he sees from true freshman Justin Smith.
"He is smart. He has a lot of heart and a lot of passion. He has quickness. Strength size is the one thing he lacks right now as a true freshman. He was down there because of players being banged up, but he has some talent. I think he could be SEC All-Freshmen Team if he plays."
Nix Likes Linebacker Competition
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