Spring Preview: Linebackers

With a good mixture of veteran and young, and a little more depth than those positions have been used to the past couple of years, the Ole Miss linebackers are set up for a very productive spring training. Part VII of a spring training series.

Unlike some positions on the Ole Miss football team - like defensive end and the offensive line, the linebackers were not hurt as much by graduation.

In fact, in a couple of offseason "bumps" with Defensive Coordinator/Linebackers Coach Tyrone Nix, he's not only excited about the experience he has coming back but of the possible quality depth that is developing at LB.

While Patrick Trahan will be hard to replace, there is no skirting that issue, and Lamar Brumfield was a quality backup, there are able-bodied candidates to compensate for those losses.

It all starts in the middle with senior Jonathan Cornell, who will be starting for the third year under Nix and knows every nuance of every defensive call.

Jonathan, like the whole linebacking corps, started a little slowly last year, but as the season progressed they got better and better. Except for the bump in the road at Starkville against MSU, Nix gave them a high grade for their 2009 efforts and Cornell was one of the main reasons why.

Cornell's goal for his final season is to make more big plays and be more dynamic. That should be accomplished now that calling the defensive signals and knowing everything there is to know is second nature to him. He'll do much less thinking and much more "turning loose" his senior season.

For now, he will be backed up by sophomore D.T. Shackelford, who showed a lot of promise in his true freshman year despite struggling most of the season with bum ankles.

D.T. will be healthy heading into spring and should make giant strides during the spring session in recognition and reaction. Knowing Nix, it's also not a given he will remain at MLB. Tyrone will put the best three LBs on the field at the same time in starting roles and there is a strong possibility D.T. will be one of the top three, facilitating a move outside.

Converted fullback H.R. Greer will also be in the mix as well as Trey Trip. Both are hard-nosed and making strides toward learning their craft.

When spring training starts, senior Allen Walker will be on the strong side and sophomore Joel Kight, Trahan's understudy in '09, will be on the weak side, but Nix is not bashful about moving guys around to get the best fits. Consequently, other than Walker and Cornell, there is really nothing at linebacker written in stone as spring training rapidly approaches.

Walker has had some offseason health issues with a sports hernia. His status for spring training is not known at this writing, but the thinking here is that he should be OK.

After the Cotton Bowl, Walker said he couldn't wait for an increased role as one of the team leaders. His maturity level in the past two years has taken a sharp turn toward manhood and it's reflected in his attention to detail, work ethic and consistency on the field. He's fully expecting a banner season to cap off his Rebel career.

Kight - for a freshman - was extremely focused his rookie campaign and quickly established himself in the six-man rotation. Joel was limited in what packages Nix would call at times, but all of that should be a thing of the past after spring and more experience is gained.

Two very intriguing young linebackers will also be trying to earn some status in spring training - freshman Mike Marry and redshirt freshman Alex Williams.

Marry joined the team during on-campus Cotton Bowl practices after greyshirting during the fall semester. Despite being a too-heavy 250 pounds and never having been in the Rebel system, Marry's Cotton Bowl practices impressed Nix.

Marry has worked hard in the offseason and is now a leaner 238 pounds. He's reduced his body fat and is moving better. He's also in much better football condition.

Williams, who was signed as a defensive end, missed all of last season with a broken leg, but he returned to practice toward the end of the year as a linebacker. In his brief practices prior to the leg injury, the coaches realized he had the movement necessary to play OLB. Alex is currently in the 220-225 pound range and should make a positive impression in spring training based on his late season showings.

Brandon Sanders, Lakenwic Haynes and Rudy Wilson are also in the mix and, at the very least, will be counted on for heavy special teams contributions. At this point, it would not be prudent to count them out in gaining some work in the top rotation as well.

Nix said he is looking forward to spring training. For the first time, he not only has experience in his stable of LBs, he's got more depth and more options of what to do with that depth.

If things go smoothly, and there's no reason to believe they won't, the three linebacker spots could easily be a strength of the team next season.

Spring training could/should prove that.

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