OXFORD • Jeff Koonz was hired just days before the start of spring practice to serve as the new inside linebackers coach at Ole Miss.
Upon arrival he began a “don’t look back campaign” in his quest to turn an Ole Miss weakness into a strength.
Had Koonz looked behind he’d have seen desolation, a defense that ranked No. 116 or lower against the run in each of the last three seasons.
The Rebels gave up 221.8 yards per game on the ground in 2018 after allowing 245.3 in 2017 and 246.4 in 2016.
“I didn’t take one second to watch any of the film from the past,” said Koonz, an Auburn graduate who was co-defensive coordinator at North Texas last season. “I was more ingrained in just getting into my guys’ lives, getting into them, getting a hold of the room, learning the details about them and what makes them tick.”
While run defense remained an issue last season the Rebels did begin this month with returning experience among the linebackers including two of the team’s top four tackles in inside linebackers Mohamed Sanogo and Willie Hibbler. They added a key piece in Lakia Henry who was rated the top junior college inside linebacker last season.
Ole Miss coach Matt Luke believed the inside backers would be a position of great competition in camp.
That’s something that Koonz encouraged, and the result has been a rotation that he says will be five or six players deep against Memphis this Saturday.
“When you walk into a room and tell them they’re going to have competition you have to show them,” Koonz said.
He illustrated that by constantly changing the depth chart. Player who were working hard to carve out roles were could see their status change sometimes by the hour.
“They saw that, ‘He’s serious,’ about the expectation and the standard in the room. We talk about being selfless brothers pushing each other, and guys have embraced the competition,” Koonz said. “If you do that you’ve got a chance to get maximum output from the entire room.”
Although he arrived in the summer and missed spring drills Henry quickly emerged in the middle of camp as a first-teamer.
He’ll likely start against Memphis alongside Sanogo.
Hibbler, Jacquez Jones, Donte Evans and possibly Zikerrion Baker could complete the rotation.
Koonz said a robust rotation could continue throughout the season.
“We’re going to have not just bodies to put out there but very capable and competent bodies to make the checks and adjustments,” Koonz said. “Now that we’re back to a full allotment of scholarships, all those things that have been spoken about in detail, we have that ability now, and that’s what it should be in the SEC.”