Quick Learners

Though the starting trio at linebacker has the Ole Miss defense with high hopes in 2009, depth has been a work in progress during fall practices. But with the emergence of freshmen D.T. Shackelford and Joel Kight, the Rebels have less cause for concern.

In the Southeastern Conference, playing time for most freshmen is usually scarce.

Throw an Associated Press No. 8 ranking into the mix, and typically the quickest way to the field for youngsters is through special teams.

But on occasion, certain newcomers step onto campus and make an immediate impact. Having had impressive performances so far in camp, reps in Ole Miss' season opener against Memphis appears all but given for frosh linebackers D.T. Shackelford and Joel Kight.

"We looked for their mental capacity and their comprehension of the system. These guys have done well," defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix said. "If we played tomorrow, they would play. If they don't get hurt between now and nine days from now, they will play against Memphis.

"So far, they have handled everything I have asked them to do. There are certain packages they are not involved in, but for the most part I call the defense and they have executed the call."

Entering 2009, none have doubted the first team trio of Jonathan Cornell, Patrick Trahan and Allen Walker.

Each are firmly entrenched in their starting roles, but depth behind the group lacks experience besides versatile senior Lamar Brumfield.

However, Shackelford and Kight have proven not to be ordinary freshmen. So much so, in fact, both are now running with the second team as game week approaches.

"I'm not sure I expected them to be second team this early, but they have forced the situation," Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt said. "They bring intensity, toughness and intelligence. They came in and picked up the terminology and the playbook and ran with it. They are still learning, but they are intense, tough and are making progress daily."

Of the two, Shackelford, a Decatur, Ala. product named All-Region by SuperPrep and listed as the No. 26 linebacker by Scout.com out of high school, has been the more impressive in preseason camp.

The 6-foot-1, 230 pounder has been nicknamed "wild man" by his counterparts, as the energetic middle linebacker has developed the reputation for flying to the football and giving maximum effort in all drills.

"I just told myself from day one to come in here and work as hard as I could," Shackelford said. "I always left it up to the coaches whether I was going to play or not. I just wanted to come out here and play my hardest every day. I've just been giving it my all. As long as you give it your all, something is going to cut loose. I've just got to keep learning from the experienced guys and the coaches."

Also a SuperPrep All-Region selection, Kight has done his part in solving the depth problem at linebacker.

The Lithonia, Ga. native is a physical specimen who enjoys contact and has proven fearless when mixing it up with experienced vets on the Rebel roster.

"You just go with the opportunity," Kight said. "The opportunity to play presented itself, and Coach Nix has shown trust in me and D.T. as far as being in the rotation. We're just trying to do our part.

"When D.T. makes a play, I want to make a play. I'm sure it's the same way with him. But it's like that with anybody on the team. That's how our defense works. We want to make a play for our team."

For Ole Miss, the additions of Shackelford and Kight to the linebacker corps are a welcomed sight.

Along with limited bodies at the position, the departures of Trahan and Brumfield due to graduation after the season have placed emphasis on the duo's quick maturation.

But according to Nix, Shackelford and Kight are right on schedule.

"When we recruited them last year, we felt they had the kind of ability to make an immediate contribution," said Nix. "That's why we were so tickled when we signed them both on signing day. Mike Markuson did a great job to get D.T. and Joel was a kid we targeted from the beginning. They have met all expectations so far and are right on schedule."


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