By David Brant/The Associated Press
OXFORD — There’s multiple ways Kentrell Lockett has helped Ole Miss win football games over the past three years.
The 6-foot-5, 260-pound defensive end often chips in with a vicious tackle at a crucial juncture, stopping the other team for a loss. But sometimes, it’s a well-timed joke or flawless impersonation of a teammate that might keep the Rebels loose in a tense moment.
“He’s got the perfect balance,” defensive tackle Jerrell Powe said. “He knows when to be serious and when it’s time to ease the tension with something funny.”
But Mississippi will begin the season against Jacksonville State on Saturday without its emotional leader, who is one of five team captains, because he’s undergoing tests for an irregular heartbeat discovered last week.
“We’re definitely going to miss him in the locker room,” Powe said. “He’s an energetic guy.”
Lockett is part of a defensive front that’s expected to lead the Rebels while a young offense, which features eight new starters, gains experience. He’s an experienced pass rusher who was among the team’s leaders with 10 tackles for a loss and five sacks last season.
Lockett’s return to the field is uncertain. Over the past week, he’s undergone a battery of tests in both Memphis, Tenn., and Cleveland after he was pulled off the field during Saturday’s scrimmage when he felt his heart racing.
The university’s head athletic trainer Tim Mullins called the issue was a “rhythm problem.”
For Ole Miss, the good news is that the defensive line is arguably the deepest spot on the roster. Sophomore Gerald Rivers, who played in five games last season, is expected to get his first career start.
“We expect big things,” defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix said. “Gerald’s a kid that’s been in the system for a few years, he’s improved day in and day out and now it’s a good opportunity.”
Linebacker Jonathan Cornell expects Rivers to play well against Jacksonville State. Lockett will be missed, he said, but part of a successful team is making adjustments with personnel.
Lockett is “a good player and he brings a lot of enthusiasm to the game, but he’s just one facet to our defense,” Cornell said. “He’s an important piece, but life goes on.”
Rivers, a converted linebacker who stands 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, said Lockett’s guidance is a big reason he’s ready to step into a starting role.
Lockett “always says to stay focused and use your eyes,” Rivers said. “A big part of defense is reading the offense. That helps you to make the play before the football’s even snapped.”
Though Jacksonville State plays at the Football Championship Subdivision level, the Gamecocks are known for their offense. They scored 35 points per game last season, which ranked 3rd nationally in the FCS.
Nix said his defense takes Jacksonville State’s ability to score points seriously, but is well-equipped to handle any issues.
“I feel like we still have some quality leaders,” Nix said. “There’s no doubt Lockett will be missed, but this defense has a lot of character.”