Rebels aiming to get faster at middle linebacker

Christian Russell arrived at Ole Miss as the top-ranked middle linebacker after his time at East Mississippi Community College. (EMCC)

Christian Russell arrived at Ole Miss as the top-ranked middle linebacker after his time at East Mississippi Community College. (EMCC)

By Parrish Alford

Daily Journal

OXFORD – Getting faster on the football field is never a bad thing, but speed isn’t only about noisy collisions.

For Serderius Bryant, it’s a matter of trust in the guy beside you.

Ole Miss is looking for a new starter at middle linebacker. D.T. Shackelford, a graduate student now in his sixth year in the program, is currently running with the first team.

He’ll have to work hard to hold off junior college transfer Christian Russell, who brings an element of quickness not seen at the position in recent seasons when Mike Marry was a physical player if not fleet of foot.

“Not to knock Mike, but last year Mike wasn’t as fast as Christian, and wasn’t as fast as Temario Strong. We’ve got some linebackers that are going to run, and I feel like all our linebackers right now probably run under a 4.7,” said Bryant, the starter at outside linebacker.

Russell, listed at 6-foot, 235 pounds, was rated the No. 1 junior college middle linebacker by Scout.com and ESPN while a sophomore at East Mississippi Community College last season.

While Rebels coach Hugh Freeze commented on earlier this week on his newcomer’s ability to “fly around” and make plays, speed isn’t only coming from Russell.

Shackelford seems to be getting around better on a knee that’s been surgically repaired twice from an ACL tear in the spring of 2011.

Shackelford played mostly at end in 2013 and showed more confidence at the end of the season. He finished with 44 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss.

Linebackers coach Tom Allen says just getting further along from surgery has helped Shackelford.

“The second year after surgery is always better. He looks a step faster to me,” Allen said.

Shackelford has a class on Mondays in the spring that keeps him out of practice, and that benefits Russell and Strong, a third-year sophomore from South Panola, with more repetitions.

Keith Lewis, another rising senior, is behind Bryant at outside linebacker.

Denzel Nkemdiche will return to the mix provided he completes the requirements related to his suspension to Freeze’s satisfaction.

Bryant, too, is currently suspended but has been able to go through spring drills and appears to be farther along the road to return than Nkemdiche.

Marry had 52 tackles and three forced fumbles last year.

There’s no questioning Russell’s physical readiness. The summer will be an important time for him to further learn and understand the defense said Allen, who added, “We ask a lot of our linebackers.”

The speed increase in the middle of the field should show up in covering screen passes, Bryant said.

“Both our linebackers can get sideline to sideline. That’s great to have, because with you being on the field and you feel like the linebacker next to you can make the same play you’re making on your side, it makes you feel great, and you know that you can trust them.”

parrish.aford@journalinc.com