Class of 2015: Linebackers

Sixth in a series …

The Rebels picked up two inside linebackers at a position of need when they landed juco transfer Terry Caldwell and South Florida prospect Shawn Curtis.

There just aren’t that many scholarship linebackers on the roster, and the most experienced and productive, Denzel Nkemdiche, is working his way back from a broken leg.

Nkemdiche will probably be fine, but you have the unknown there of exactly how a player will recover and what level of production he might reach again.

Hugh Freeze and staff were all in for Leo Lewis, but that didn’t work out, and it’s unclear if Lewis would have qualified academically now since one of the two scholarships he signed was with Copiah-Lincoln Community College.

Speaking of coming back from injury, the Rebels are trying to replace D.T. Shackelford, who was really one of the feel-good stories of college football last year. Shackelford worked his way back from two major knee surgeries after an ACL tear in the spring of 2011. He was just OK and not his old self in 2013 – until that began to change at the end of the year.

Then he worked his way into the starting middle linebacker spot last year and finished with 65 tackles, tied for third on the team, five tackles for loss, two sacks and two pressures.

Ole Miss had a mid-year juco signee at middle linebacker last year in Christian Russell. The light began to come on for Russell later in the year. He got more snaps and finished with 23 tackles, a half tackle for loss and a couple of hurries.

Shackelford’s return was doubly important as Russell was learning the ropes. Russell will be the favorite to start at MLB when spring practice begins.

DeMarquis Gates will be a sophomore, and while he drew praise from coaches he didn’t get that many line-of-scrimmage snaps. He’s played both middle and outside (Stinger) and being a little lighter in the pants than Russell might be a better candidate for the outside.

The Rebels needed an inside linebacker and in Caldwell they have a guy with good size (6-2, 230), good juco numbers and good reviews for his one season at Northwest Community College.

Caldwell was rated the No. 2 juco inside linebacker by ESPN, the No. 80 juco prospect overall by Scout.com.

He led Mississippi community colleges with 122 tackles. He had three sacks, five pass break-ups and five hurries, numbers that suggest he has good range.

Remember, those are juco numbers, so proceed with caution.

Curtis had been committed to Pittsburgh. Freeze convinced him to flip to Ole Miss for a chance to play middle linebacker as opposed to end. At 6-3, 247 he’s big enough for either. Actually, at 247 he becomes the biggest linebacker on the Ole Miss roster.

One South Florida recruiting analyst considers Curtis a diamond in the rough, a guy who played at a high school that hasn’t had football for a long time and was overlooked in the talent-rich area.

The bottom line is there aren’t a lot of scholarship linebackers. There are fewer who have had meaningful game reps and done good things with them.

The Rebels need quick help from Caldwell or Curtis, and they won’t have the benefit of learning from an experienced player in front of them the way Russell did.

It wouldn’t be stunning to see quarterback Kendrick Doss move to linebacker. There’s been some buzz about Doss on defense, and the numbers are getting better at that position and could be better still next year if the Rebels land Shea Patterson out of Shreveport, rated the nation’s No. 1 dual threat quarterback by Rivals. Patterson is expected to announce Tuesday and is considered a heavy Ole Miss lean.

Denham Springs, La., native, Mississippian since 1989 with a stop in Meridian before arriving in Tupelo. Daily Journal beat writer since 1996, covering Ole Miss since 2002. Proud Northeast Louisiana alum. Follow me on Twitter @parrishalford and listen to John Davis and myself daily with The Ole Miss Beat on Rebel Sports Radio.

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