When Christian Russell signed last winter I thought he’d have a good shot to make a quick impact at middle linebacker.
In short, D.T. Shackelford surprised me. I wasn’t sure his knee would hold up for a season, but it did.
It’s fun to see good things happened to good people, and Shackelford is good people.
The knee held up, and Shackelford tied with Serderius Bryant for third on the team in tackles with 65. He also had five tackles for loss, a couple of sacks, a couple of pressures.
Bryant, the outside linebacker called stinger, had eight tackles for loss, a sack and an interception.
Throw in the stability of senior reserve Keith Lewis who had a memorable fumble return for a touchdown at Texas A&M, and there’s a lot of production not returning at a position that didn’t have a lot of bodies to start with.
The top returning tackler, Denzel Nkemdiche, is coming off a fractured fibula, an injury he shares with wide receiver Laquon Treadwell and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil.
Russell had some moments – like nine tackles at A&M which accounted for almost half of his 23 stops.
His opportunities will increase dramatically with the attrition. So will those for rising sophomore DeMarquis Gates. Coaches raved about him early in the season, but he remained third on the depth chart at middle behind Russell.
At 6-0, 235, Russell carries some size with his quickness. Gates is smaller at 6-2, 211.
As a juco transfer Russell could not supplant Shackelford. In the spring and summer he’ll have to hold off another juco transfer in Terry Caldwell.
In his one season at Northwest Community College, Caldwell led the state jucos and finished fourth nationally with 122 tackles. He also had 12.5 tackles for loss, three sacks and five pressures.
He’s listed at 6-2, 220 and had offers from Texas A&M and TCU among others.
There are other veterans in the program, but Temario Strong and Ray Ray Smith haven’t seen many line of scrimmage snaps.
Tayler Polk is a rising third-year sophomore, a walk-on that defensive coordinator Dave Wommack felt comfortable in throwing into the fire against Boise, and Polk handled things well.
There’s a great need for help from new folks. If Caldwell picks up things quickly it’s possible Gates could play some on the outside.
Ole Miss has a four-star commit with good size in Leo Lewis (6-0, 238) if it can hold off challengers and land Lewis on signing day.
This group will also have a new position coach, but it’s probably Wommack, who will make that transition easily.
There are a lot of parts and pieces coming back from a great defense, but the linebackers could be a work in progress.