Ole Miss will kickoff the 2017 season in less than two weeks and fall camp is coming to an end. As Ole Miss prepares to begin the season, an emphasis in fall camp has been to improve the group of linebackers. This was a group that struggled mightily for the Rebels in 2016. After losing three key players at the position from the 2015 season (C.J. Johnson, Denzel Nkemdiche, and Christian Russell), the holes they left behind were apparent last season. New defensive coordinator, Wesley McGriff, will obviously have to make some changes. He will run a more traditional 4-3 defense compared to the 4-2-5 scheme the Rebels have used the past several years under both Tyrone Nix and Dave Wommack. Considering the changes to scheme and personnel that have been made, here is our Ole Miss linebacker breakdown.
Leading the Pack
Demarquis Gates, a senior, will enter his third season as a starter and has led Ole Miss in tackling for two seasons in a row. He has played in 37 games over his Ole Miss career and has compiled 168 tackles over that span. His consistency, experience, and leadership will be heavily counted on if this position group is to improve this season. As long as he stays healthy, the Rebels will have at least one playmaker at the linebacker position.
Detric Bing-Dukes is listed as the starter at mike linebacker. After transferring to Ole Miss after playing his freshman season at Iowa Western Community College, Bing-Dukes made three starts in 2016 and registered 41 tackles. He played well at times and also showed his inexperience at times. However, at 6-1, 254, he should be a much better fit in McGriff’s defense as he isn’t the type of linebacker you would want to have to cover sideline to sideline. In this defense, he can play to his strength which is plugging gaps in the run game. While Bing-Dukes will miss the first game due to suspension, he could possibly be a breakout player this fall.
At the other outside linebacker spot, JUCO transfer Brenden Williams is listed as the starter. However, the depth chart at this specific position is written in sand and can change from day to day as inexperienced players will be counted on to contribute. Williams has impressed coaches with his athleticism. Consistency is the main component lacking in Williams’s game. Even if he loses his starting job at some point, Williams will be counted on heavily in 2017.
In all reality, Gates is the only cemented starter in this position group. With that being said, here are some players that will be counted on heavily along with the listed starters.
Donta Evans is a redshirt freshman who will start in the place of Bing-Dukes week one. The coaches have said that the redshirt year benefited Evans greatly and has made vast improvements physically and mentally. He has prototypical size for a middle linebacker and is one of the more physical players in this group.
Redshirt sophomore, Willie Hibbler, will be counted on the play at both the will and mike linebacker spots. Ole Miss recruited Hibbler as a tight end then moved him to linebacker last season. He made one start last season which was against Auburn. Hibbler’s inexperience showed greatly. He was constantly caught out of position and the Rebels gave up over 300 yards on the ground. Hibbler has to improve in 2017 as he will factor into the rotation heavily.
Taylor Polk is a senior walk on who has contributed on special teams and as a backup outside linebacker throughout the last three seasons. Last season he had two starts to his credit and made 34 tackles. He’s not overly athletic but is experienced and a dedicated player. He will be another important leader in this group.
Sophomore Jarrion Street has impressed all of the coaches during fall camp. He is undersized (6-1, 211) but has fantastic athleticism and flies to the football. Street had a small amount of experience on special teams in 2016. He could potentially start at some point this fall if he continues to improve.
Ole Miss signed four high school linebackers in their 2017 recruiting class. Of the four, Breon Dixon was the highest rated player. Dixon was rated by ESPN as a four-star prospect and ranked 144th in their list of the top 300 high school recruits for 2017. Dixon will play mainly as a nickel back and needs to develop physically before he can play at linebacker full time. He should see the field plenty in 2017 regardless where he lines up.
Mohamed Sanogo was another four-star prospect the Rebels signed at the position. Sanogo has good size for a freshman (6-2, 228) and will most likely see the field at some point this season at middle linebacker.
Ole Miss signed yet another four-star linebacker in Josh Clarke. He was listed at number 287 in ESPN’s top 300. He has good athleticism and will play outside linebacker. Clarke has done a good job at competing in fall camp so far according to the coaches. If players ahead of him on the depth chart struggle, Clarke could possibly receive some playing time this season.
The Rebels also signed a middle linebacker in Zikerrion Baker. The freshman was rated as a two or a three-star prospect depending on the recruiting service. He will most likely redshirt this season as he needs to develop physically to play middle linebacker.
This position will determine how much the Ole Miss defense will improve as a unit in 2017. If there is little improvement, the defensive line and secondary will struggle along with it. With a new defensive coordinator and a new scheme that better fits the personnel, expect his position to improve every week by week as young players see the field and experienced players such as Gates and Bing-Dukes provide some consistency. This position will not be a top five unit in the conference, but don’t expect them to be the worst in the conference as they were last season.