Overview – After an up-and-down year for the Ole Miss linebackers in 2007, the unit entered last season with something to prove.
The goal was simple. Each player was devoted to getting better and providing a more consistent approach to their craft after a trying campaign the year before. No more talk of being the possible "weakest link" of the Rebel D.
A strong defensive line would help, but depth and inconsistency was an issue. However, as the year wore on and the unit grew more and more confident, a dominant defense began to take shape.
The linebacking corps was at the center of the movement.
While there were bumps along the way, the group showed glimpses of brilliance at different points in 2008. A strong performance against Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl capped it off, as players like Jonathan Cornell, Allen Walker, Patrick Trahan, Ashlee Palmer and Tony Fein showed their growth and potential in a 47-34 victory.
With a strong season behind them, the focus now shifts to 2009, with the Rebel linebackers a focal point in continuing the defense's dominance in year two under Defensive Coordinator Tyrone Nix.
Leading the charge is Cornell, a junior MLB who has struggled with inconsistency throughout his time at Ole Miss. Injuries have hampered his cause, however, as Cornell was sidelined for 10 games during his sophomore campaign due to lingering shoulder issues.
But after starting 11 of 13 games last season, Cornell appears poised for prominence heading into spring practice. He totaled 45 tackles with 5.5 tackles for loss and three sacks during the 9-4 season, while appearing capable in pass coverage – a troublesome responsibility in previous years.
The former 4-star recruit was pegged as a potential successor to Patrick Willis early in his career, and will now be looked to make that jump in the spring as the perceived leader of the unit.
With the departure of Palmer at WLB, senior Patrick Trahan is set to man a starting role next season, after piling up 29 total tackles, including 4.5 TFLs and two sacks during his inaugural season in Red and Blue.
While initially making his mark on special teams, the JUCO transfer continued to improve as the year progressed. He received an increase in playing time through steady performances during the regular season, culminating in a critical sack on Texas Tech's Graham Harrell to help preserve the Rebel win.
His continued development this spring is pivotal, as the coaching staff will have to build depth after losing Fein (the group's key backup) to graduation. But after adding needed strength this offseason, he should certainly be up for the task.
In terms of improvement, no linebacker progressed more last season than junior Allen Walker. While few have doubted the now-veteran's potential, he hadn't proven his worth until a breakout year in 2008.
He ranked eighth overall in tackles with 41 on the year, while notching 4.0 TFLs, two sacks and an interception. While somewhat undersized at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, he held up well against the run a year ago, but will need to continue his growth in the weight room to maintain his durability.
One linebacker to watch this spring is redshirt freshman Jason Jones.
At a rock solid 220 pounds, Jones has the desired frame to man the middle against SEC foes. With Fein gone, look for Jones to get the first look at filling the void. He's unquestionably gifted, as the Albany, Ga. native was all the rage during Cotton Bowl preparations.
Returning Starters – Jonathan Cornell, Allen Walker
Other Key Returnees – Patrick Trahan, Lamar Brumfield, Jason Jones, Don Hargroder
Key Signees – Tim Simon, D.T. Shackelford, Joel Kight, Willie Ferrell, Mike Marry, DeMarcus Knight
Key Losses – Ashlee Palmer, Tony Fein
Quotable – Defensive Coordinator Tyrone Nix:
On developing defensive depth during spring practice:
"We'd like to come out with a two or three deep if that opportunity presents itself. We can't predict injury, of course, but we can get a lot done. We are looking for guys who compete the hardest, are most consistent and are most accountable throughout the spring. Those people will have a chance to start. Who knows who will be the starting guys? Competition out there is good and will drive a lot of decisions."
On senior Patrick Trahan
"We expect a lot from Patrick now. He knows the ropes and he's in good shape. We expect him to have a big year and I think he expects that of himself as well."
On the linebackers picking up production following the departure of DT Peria Jerry:
"I think it is a challenge to all of them. I think everyone has to up their level of play. I don't think one person can do it. It's up to all 11 on defense. (MLB) Jonathan Cornell or an (OLB) Allen Walker or (FS) Kendrick Lewis, all those guys have to improve to help replace a player of Peria's caliber."
Senior Patrick Trahan –
On what he plans to focus on in the spring:
"I'm a senior now. This is the last time around so I want to be prepared the best I can be. This spring, Coach Nix wants us to perfect our fundamentals and then go from there."
On his performance last season:
"I felt things started coming together for me the second half of the season. I was struggling with my conditioning early on, but as I got in shape, things started clicking. This year everything is going to be good because I know the defense like the back of my hand and I am in the best shape I have ever been in."
On adding valuable strength this offseason:
"I'm at 240 now and that's where I want to be next season. I played last year at 230-232. I can tell the difference in my strength levels. I've been like a gym rat in the weight room doing everything I can to get all my strength levels up."
On becoming a senior leader:
"I don't say a whole lot. I try to lead by my actions. I just want to set an example and gain respect from my play. I won't be one of the forceful leaders; I'll be more of a helpful leader. There are lots of ways to lead."
On the team's expectations for 2009:
"We are trying to go all the way. Last year, I think we had the talent to go all the way, but it took us some time to buy in completely with a new situation and a new staff. Now we are in totally. We know what we've got to do and everyone believes. We will take 'one heartbeat' into the season."
Final Analysis – As one of the more veteran groups on the team, the linebackers enter spring practice with some pretty high expectations.
Nix has already said this group will be relied upon, as every member of the Rebel defense will be asked to help replace the production lost in defensive tackle Peria Jerry.
But led by Cornell, who grew stronger in the season's latter stages, the unit appears in good hands. While the losses of Palmer and Fein surely sting, there shouldn't be a noticeable drop-off with Trahan and Jones. Both are gifted run-stoppers, but have proven capable in pass coverage as well.
As the most athletic in the bunch, Walker should only get better this spring. Fans had been waiting for him to crack the starting lineup over the years, and he didn't disappoint last season. If all goes according to plan, look for Walker to play at an All-Conference level next season.
With their starters in place, the coaching staff will certainly focus on rebuilding depth behind Cornell, Walker and Trahan. While current players on the roster will get first dibs on grabbing a spot behind the Big Three, a wealth of talented recruits are sure to get a shot in August.
But finding a few more bodies before then is desired. Brumfield will be in the mix, as will Hargroder, who suffered a season-ending injury last season.
Despite who emerges, however, the unit is already considered a strong suit by the coaches as March 26th approaches.
Spring Preview: Linebackers
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