By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – It’s no surprise that D.T. Shackelford, now a junior, has grown into the leader of the Ole Miss defense.
It’s more surprising that a veteran unit performed so inadequately in many areas in 2010, and now it’s a resurgence that Shackelford must lead.
He is a candidate to do just that, because of how he’s handled himself both on and off the field.
“D.T. is second to none when you come to that category. The first thing you do when you’re defining a leader is a guy that leads by example,” defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix said. “He’s an excellent example of a student-athlete, and he’s never satisfied with his performance, because he understands there’s always room for improvement.”
In a 4-8 season, the Rebels were no better than ninth in any SEC team defensive statistical category.
They were last in scoring defense (35.2 ppg) and last in pass defense efficiency (151 rating).
Shackelford stands 6-foot-1 and is up to 244 pounds. He appeared in all 12 games last year, playing end and linebacker and drawing six starts.
Having served as Jonathan Cornell’s backup in the middle, Shackelford is first team at weak side linebacker now, joined by sophomore Mike Marry in the middle and junior Joel Kight on the strong side.
“I say I’m the leader of the defense in a humble way. It’s not that I rule over or boss over anybody. I want to be the leader to say, ‘Hey, follow me. I will show you the right way to go,’” Shackelford said.
The right way involves an open line of communication between players and coaches and making every effort to correct problems and clear up things during the week before they short-circuit a winning Saturday.
“It’s just hard work and dedicating yourself to the game. If you don’t know something, let’s go to coach’s office and talk to him. Let’s get it right. Let’s not mess up on Saturdays. Let’s get it right all throughout the week,” Shackelford said.
Two years ago, Nix’s Ole Miss unit ranked fourth in the SEC in both total defense and scoring defense.
While there was turnover in the secondary in 2010, a senior-dominated defensive line was expected to carry on that success.
One of those seniors, end Kentrell Lockett, sustained a season-ending knee injury and is waiting to hear if he’ll be granted a medical redshirt year by the NCAA.
Though Ole Miss set a school record for points allowed, there were periods of individual achievement in 2010.
Some of it was from Shackelford, who led the team with five sacks and with three quarterback hurries. He also posted nine tackles for loss, second on the team.
Nix says a defensive turnaround will depend on how attentive the Rebels are to the “little things,” starting with discipline off the field and fundamentals on it.
He’s relying on Shackelford to help set that tone.
“I think his leadership will be very critical on this team and on this defense, and he’s heading in the right direction,” Nix said.
Eight starters are gone from the defense, but enough veterans are around to feel a hunger to return to the 2009 level of production.
The first step is in cutting down the number of big plays allowed, and that, Shackelford says, begins in practice.
The 399.2 yards a game allowed last season ranked 11th in the SEC, but the 6.3 yards per play ranked last.
“You look back to last year, and that’s what really killed us, explosion plays. We weren’t really together. You can say that’s a result of practice. We probably could have went harder on a drill or here or there,” he said.
“This year we want to eliminate the big plays and play hard every snap. I feel like we’re hungry as a defense and an offense. I like the new coaches we’ve brought in. They’ve brought a lot of intensity, a lot of enthusiasm. We want to win. You can feel it.”
Contact Parrish Alford at 678-1600