OXFORD – If the goal of spring football was to actually weaken the Ole Miss defense, there would be no better method than to subtract D.T. Shackelford.
Of course that wasn’t the plan, but to borrow and modify from former Mississippi State baseball coach Ron Polk, and so many others, “That’s football.”
It was announced Tuesday that Shackelford has a torn ACL in his right knee, an injury sustained in Monday’s practice that will in all likelihood end his 2011 season.
Shackelford will have surgery within two weeks, and the anticipated recovery time is six to eight months.
It is the second major injury in less than a year’s time for the Ole Miss defense. Senior Kentrell Lockett tore an ACL last Sept. 26 against Fresno State. Now almost seven months later, he’s still on crutches but is expected to be cleared soon and to play a key role this season.
Lockett’s injury was a big hit in terms of leadership as well as production. Shackelford, who led the team in sacks and quarterback pressures last year, stepped into that void this spring, and having both players on the field created intriguing possibilities for a defense that gave up more points than any other in the SEC last season.
Actually, the defense has shown improvement, particularly among a front line that lost four senior tackles.
There is potential among the Ole Miss linebackers in young players, like Mike Marry and Clarence Jackson most notably, but very little experience.
The new void will require a great coaching job from coordinator Tyrone Nix and his defensive assistants, primarily secondary coach Keith Burns.
Incoming freshman C.J. Johnson, the state’s top recruit, will be under the microscope for quick contributions, but the key to replacing Shackelford will not be the next new talent but developing the guys already in the system.
Nix coaches the linebackers and has typically gotten production from his unit. Players like Ashlee Palmer, Tony Fein and Jonathan Cornell – and D.T. Shackelford – come to mind over the first three years.
Burns was hired to improve a woeful pass defense that ranked last in the SEC and No. 109 in the nation in pass defense efficiency.
This spring there is greater focus on press coverage by defensive backs who often gave a great cushion between themselves and the receivers they covered in 2010.
There will be more bump-and-run from the Rebels this season, and it will be played with varying results. They will win some battles and lose some others, but from the early look of things the passing yards gained will be earned.
In addition to Johnson, Ole Miss signed four other linebackers in February. The Rebels have cornerback prospects coming too, if they successfully navigate academic and pro baseball concerns before newcomers report.
These players don’t reach campus “SEC ready.”
If Ole Miss is to have a fighting chance to show real improvement from a 4-8 season, a chance to have a winning season and get to a bowl game, the defense has to play much better.
That won’t be easy without Shackelford, another hurdle placed on an already challenging schedule.
But it must be cleared if the Rebels are to climb from the SEC Western Division cellar, and at the end-of-the-year banquet they need Nix and Burns to be the MVPs.
Parrish Alford (email@example.com) covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily about Ole Miss athletics at NEMS360.com.
Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal