HOOVER, Ala. – Linebacker play has been the epicenter of defensive struggle at Ole Miss in recent seasons.
Now the Rebels are getting ready to put four on the field.
As Ole Miss moves to a 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre there’s been emphasis on the outside linebackers, guys who will be called on as pass rushers more often than their inside mates. “Quarterback disruptors,” MacIntyre calls them.
But Ole Miss coach Matt Luke is intrigued by the competition at the inside spots.
Leading tackler Mohamed Sanogo returns. He and senior Willie Hibbler are listed as starters on the preseason depth chart.
Sanogo finished with 112 tackles. Hibbler was peaking later in the season and finished fourth on the team with 50 stops.
Jacquez Jones, a freshman All-SEC performer in 2018, is behind Hibbler at one inside spot. Junior Donta Evans is currently listed behind Sanogo, but junior college transfer Lakia Henry, rated the No. 1 juco linebacker, is expected to break into the top four, perhaps as a starter.
“He’s real explosive,” Sanogo said. “He’s got good hands, fast hands. He’s physical when we’re doing bag drills. I’m excited for him.”
There are very little differences in responsibilities for the two inside backers. Where Sanogo lines up will be determined by whether he sees a three-receiver set or a two-receiver set in which he would focus on the running back.
“The 3-4 we feel caters more to our team,” Sanogo said. “Coach MacIntyre does a great job of making sure everything is simple enough to get where you have that base understanding and building on that knowledge rather than taking in all the information at once.”
He believes the front seven approach will be more effective against the run than last year’s 4-2-5 which employed a fifth defensive back that often lined up near the line of scrimmage.
The Rebels were No. 116 nationally in rushing defense last season, No. 123 in 2017.
In theory a four-linebacker set reduces the area Sanogo will be asked to cover and will allow him to focus on the middle of the field and play hash mark to hash mark instead of sideline to sideline.
For the inside linebackers the new system has been “interchangeable and really simple to learn,” he said.
As the Rebels try to improve their tackling Luke believes that Sanogo and Hibbler give the Rebels a good starting point and that MacIntyre’s work in the spring built a foundation.
“I think the attention to detail, all the different walk-throughs, I think it paid dividends in the spring with guys being lined up right, being in the right spot, and typically when you’re in the right spot, and you have your eyes right you become a better tackler,” he said.