Rebels Look to Use Linebackers’ Experience to Boost Defense in 2021
Ole Miss looks to use its returning experience at linebacker to help boost the Rebel defense in 2021.
If you watched much Ole Miss football this year, it will come as no surprise the Rebels are putting a priority on defensive improvement heading into 2021.
The offense shined in year one under head coach Lane Kiffin and offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby, leading the SEC in yards per game (555.5 ypg). However, the defense checked in last in the SEC in the same category (519 ypg) — although, it’s certainly worth noting the unit did flex its muscle against Indiana in the Outback Bowl.
With the 2021 recruiting class, the staff has definitely addressed areas of need with some athletic defensive linemen and defensive backs.
That unit spent much of the season trying to offset a defensive line that struggled with size and depth, recording just 16 sacks, only two more than South Carolina, who recorded the fewest in the SEC this season.
But the linebackers brought it each game and were responsible for nearly 30% of Ole Miss’ tackles on the year, led by Jones who had an outstanding season en route to tallying a team-high 75 tackles over nine games.
Henry notched 62 in nine games, while Sanogo made 60 tackles in ten games, and Williams added 40 in ten games. Their careers as Rebels have also been impressive.
To understand just how much these four linebackers have contributed in their time at Ole Miss, here’s a look at their combined numbers of total tackles over their careers:
|Linebacker||Career Tackles (Seasons)|
|MoMo Sanogo||184 (2017, 18, 19, 20)
(Redshirt Injury 2019)
|Jacquez Jones||182 (2018, 19, 20)|
|Lakia Henry||149 (2019, 20)|
|Sam Williams||72 (2019, 20)|
— Jacquez Jones (@ESPN_Jac) January 4, 2021
Unfinished Business…… pic.twitter.com/VuWjK0AXAf
— BIG SAM 💙 (@DegarrickSamuel) January 4, 2021
Lakia Henry on returning next season: "I will be coming back next year. I feel I can go in the first three rounds, and I'm going to put my all into it next year."
— The Rebel Walk (@TheRebelWalk) December 29, 2020
The story isn’t over yet… 2️⃣0️⃣2️⃣1️⃣ pic.twitter.com/aKXvr6Lvbh
— S A N O G O (@_momosanogo) January 6, 2021
Outback Bowl – Defense Headed in the Right Direction
The Rebels’ defense made a dramatic turnaround in the bowl game, allowing only six points in the first three quarters. Head coach Tom Allen’s Hoosiers averaged just 4.3 yards per play in the game — almost one yard per play below its season average. The Rebels forced multiple turnovers for just the third time this season and held Indiana to 369 yards, the fewest the Rebels had allowed all season.
After giving up an average of 34.4 points per game in the regular season, the Ole Miss defense gave up just 20 points to No. 7 Indiana.
“It feels great. We prepared like no other. We had the Christmas break but we came in that Saturday and went right to work. I feel like the defense is headed in the right direction.”
Ole Miss LB Jacquez Jones on the Rebels’ Outback Bowl performance
In a matter of just two weeks, the defense transformed into one that looked strong –and even dominant– at times against the No. 7 Hoosiers (AP Poll).
“(Defensive coordinator D.J.) Durkin had us do about 20 walkthroughs a day,” Jones said of his team’s preparation and change of fortune. “I feel like that helped us out a lot. We knew what was coming and I feel like we showed it on the field,” he added.
The defensive performance wasn’t lost on quarterback Matt Corral, who found himself in a shootout many games this season.
“The difference was that the defense stepped up,” Corral said.
“They made the stop. The defense won us that game. It’s plain and simple. They finished it for us. We didn’t need to go out on the field again. We did, but we needed to take a knee. That’s the easiest play in football.”
Ole Miss QB Matt Corral on the Rebels’ defense vs. Indiana
Going Hunting for Backers
All eyes will be on the Rebels’ defense in 2021, while the offense is expected to continue rolling. Throughout this recruiting cycle, Lane Kiffin talked about his desire to bring more defensive talent to the team and it certainly appears he has done just that.
As it stands, the Rebels have the nation’s 19th-best recruiting class, with 13 of the 24 signees defensive players. Of those 13, ten are enrolling early and will be on campus January 18 to begin work. Ole Miss signed at least two players for every defensive position, but no linebackers.
With three or four spots still available in this 2021 class, my guess would be that Kiffin looks to add another linebacker, either during the February signing period or through the transfer portal. The two most likely options for LBs that will sign in February would be 4-star Trevin Wallace (an Auburn lean) and 3-star Josiah Perryman. If neither of them sign with the Rebels, I’d expect Kiffin to turn his attention to the transfer portal.
Outlook for 2021
In 2021, defensive coordinators Chris Partridge and D.J. Durkin will lean on the returning group of four starting linebackers to be the backbone of a defense that is hopefully much-improved.
Experience of any kind is an asset in SEC football, but especially at a position like linebacker. Linebackers are the quarterbacks of the defense, and having your entire starting unit return with multiple years of SEC football under their belts should prove to be a great boost for the Rebels.
— Ole Miss Football (@OleMissFB) January 11, 2021
Along with Jones, Sanogo, Henry, and Williams, the Ole Miss defense will return every defensive starter from 2020, minus DL Ryder Anderson who entered the portal at the end of 2020.
Keep your eyes on the transfer portal this offseason, as it’s sure to get wild! And while you’re at it, keep your eyes on this quartet of talented and experienced linebackers.
(Feature image of MoMo Sanogo and Jacquez Jones courtesy of Josh McCoy, Ole Miss Athletics)