By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Jonathan Cornell hasn’t set out to be the leader of the Ole Miss defense. If that’s been the case, he says, it’s been simply a byproduct of his desire to be on top of his own game each time out.
The leading tackler on a unit that has often struggled to ground opposing ball-carriers, Cornell says he hasn’t given much thought to playing his final football game Saturday night against Mississippi State.
An Azusa, Calif., native, Cornell is among 19 seniors, another wave of players recruited by former coach Ed Orgeron, who will be exiting the program.
“I try to lead by example. If something needs to be said I’ll say it, but to try and be the outright leader of the group, that’s not my intention,” Cornell says. “If it happens to be like that, then so be it.”
The Rebels had a clear voice of leadership when defensive end Kentrell Lockett was healthy. Lockett, however, tore an ACL early against Fresno State, taking with him a steady presence against the run and 13 quarterback pressures from 2009.
Whether intentional or not, Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt says Cornell’s leadership has been important for the defense.
“He’s been an awesome captain for us. He’s really played hard,” Nutt said.
The effort was clear against LSU when Cornell posted 10 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack.
In the end it wasn’t enough. LSU totaled 470 yards and scored with less than a minute left to win 43-36.
“You hate to see the tears in that dressing room,” Nutt said. “He was one of them that laid it on the line. He has such pride. He made a lot of big plays, tackles. He was always in the right place. You can count on him.”
While lacking SportsCenter speed, Cornell has brought smarts and determination to the table to become the Rebels’ leading tackler with 68 stops, a figure that ranks him 14th in the SEC.
He has 13 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks, both team-highs.
An English major with an interest in classic literature, Cornell viewed his new surroundings with a suspicious eye upon his arrival.
He played sparingly as a freshman but was a sophomore starter at weak side linebacker in 2007 when he sustained a shoulder injury against Missouri and missed the last 10 games.
“There are a lot of cultural differences here, the history of the university, some of the things it’s had to overcome, the fighting connotations,” Cornell said. “You have to learn for yourself and take what you can from every situation. It was kind of difficult to adjust at first.”
One of the difference Cornell noted was in the way football is played.
“The style is different, so much more physical down here, more physical than out west or anywhere else in the country,” he said.
Cornell received a medical redshirt and was classed as a sophomore again in 2008, starting 11 games.
He had 79 tackles in 2009, and the unintended consequences of his play – leadership – began to surface.
“He’s been like a father figure to me on the field,” said D.T. Shackelford, a sophomore who has played linebacker and end this season. “He’s taught me the ropes. He’s our most consistent guy. Week in and week out you know what you’re going to get from him, and that’s what he’s taught me most. You can’t have a great game one week and be bad the next.”
So it is the Cornell hopes to finish his career with one more display of consistency but also with a winning result, something that has escaped he and his mates in the SEC since beating Kentucky 42-35 the first Saturday in October.
Nutt calls him the backbone of the defense.
“That’s a pretty big compliment coming from the head man,” Cornell said. “I just try to do what I can to be of assistance to this team and the coaches.”
Contact Parrish Alford at 678-1600 or firstname.lastname@example.org.