Ole Miss’ Late Additions Solidify Rebel Landshark Linebackers

Photo by UM Photographer Kevin Bain
Photo by UM Photographer Kevin Bain /

Losing out on the Mique Juarez sweepstakes on National Signing Day was a big blow for the Ole Miss linebacking unit. With CJ Johnson and Christian Russell moving on, it appeared the linebacking unit would be paper thin going into next Fall. Sure, DeMarquis Gates is one of the most talented players on the roster and Shawn Curtis has shown promise for the future. Then there’s the talented and fast Terry Caldwell who, like most junior college players, is sure to be more acclimated and ready to contribute in his second season at the SEC level. But, the landshark defense was short on proven, playmaking linebackers and short at the position as it pertains to bodies.

Now more than a month later the position seems to be just fine. Enter Oregon State transfer Rommel Mageo, who led the Beavers in tackles last season with 87, and the Rebels have a proven playmaker, with experience at the mike linebacker spot, which is really where the most concern lies. Not long after Mageo joined the fold, Ole Miss was the beneficiary of a late addition of former Georgia linebacker Detric Bing-Dukes signed with the Rebels. Originally Bing-Dukes had signed with the Bulldogs before ending up at Iowa Western Community College. Last December he signed with Middle Tennessee State, but ended up one class short of being able to get out at the mid-year mark. The Rebels did their homework and were able to sign him in early March.

Photo via StatesmenJournal.com
Photo via StatesmenJournal.com /

The linebacker position is now set where Hugh Freeze and his staff are satisfied with what they have going into the Fall. There is proven talent, young talent and a scattered bit of experience with the aforementioned grad transfer Mageo, third-year sophomore Bing-Dukes, junior Gates and senior Caldwell. Freeze expects both newcomers to challenge for the starting job, even going as far as to say Mageo “may be the guy.”

As with Juarez, it has not become uncommon for the Rebels to lose out on big-time, prized linebacker recruits. However, that was not the case when they signed Gates. He was once considered a 4-star prospect out of Lovejoy, Georgia, but saw his ranking fall when he missed his senior season due to injury. He has been a more-than-solid producer since arriving in Oxford, including a 2015 campaign in which he tallied 76 tackles, four pass deflections, two tackles for loss and a pair of forced fumbles. He even proved effective when asked to blitz, as he totaled four quarterback hurries. He seems poised to establish himself a conference and nationwide star in 2016.

Photo via DawgNation.com
Photo via DawgNation.com /

Perhaps the biggest positive for Gates and the biggest factor that could play into Mageo or Bing-Dukes potentially being a starter at linebacker is the fact that Gates will be able to move to his natural outside linebacking slot. Mageo and Bing-Dukes are true mike linebackers and surely solidify that spot along with the emerging redshirt freshman Curtis. Not only should we see the best of what Gates has to offer, it will allow the other three guys to play at their true spots as well. While Mageo and Bing-Dukes will not be participating in spring practices, Curtis should get a lot of snaps that will go a long way in his development. Gates will also see significant time at middle linebacker throughout the spring for depth purposes.

As for the rest of the group, it is now or never it seems for senior South Panola product Temario Strong. A consistent special teams contributor, Strong could earn a nice role in the middle of the Rebel defense if he proves he can get sideline to sideline. Ray Ray Smith is another guy who has been around Dave Wommack’s system for a few years now. Smith fits more in the mold of an outside backer, but he is seasoned enough in the defensive scheme and has been in Paul Jackson’s program for going on three years now. Outside of his special team duties Tayler Polk could also be helpful down the depth chart in case of injury or in mop up duty. To expound on Caldwell’s role he should provide a more-than-serviceable backup to Gates if Mageo and Bing-Dukes do indeed hold down the middle linebacker spots, but there’s bound to shuffling and shifting between those four for those two spots.

Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports /

Looking ahead to the future there is reason for fans to be excited. Not only should fans know about the big-bodied Curtis who was slow to come around on the practice squad during his redshirt season in 2015, but once he did turn the corner he did so in an impressive way. It should also be noted that gifted redshirt freshman athlete Willie Hibbler has made the move to linebacker this spring. After spending his redshirt year working at tight end the jumbo athlete should provide athleticism at the linebacker position. Donta Evans, a middle linebacker out of Georgia, is likely to redshirt this Fall but he enrolled early after being pursued by a host of SEC schools. He should be a good one for the Rebels down the road. Tariqious Tisdale is long, rangy athlete coming from the state of Tennessee that could end up at defensive end, but will spend his redshirt season working at middle linebacker, but outside linebacker could also be a fit for him. Tisdale has sideline-to-sideline speed and instincts that are second-to-none.

Aug 28, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Boise State Broncos quarterback Grant Hedrick (9) is hit by Mississippi Rebels defensive end Channing Ward (11) as Hedrick throws an interception in the first quarter of the 2014 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 28, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Boise State Broncos quarterback Grant Hedrick (9) is hit by Mississippi Rebels defensive end Channing Ward (11) as Hedrick throws an interception in the first quarter of the 2014 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at the Georgia Dome. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports /

A few things are worth noting here, though, one is that while Freeze and the coaches have missed on some prime linebacker targets on the recruiting trail the defense that Wommack runs only requires two linebackers be on the field in most cases. So the number of backers on the roster, especially with the two recent additions, is more than enough and could sustain an injury or two. Also, there is a nice balance of experience and youth. Evans, Curtis, Tisdale, Hibbler and Bing-Dukes will be around a few more years and should develop into major contributors while Gates, Caldwell and Mageo will be the anchors in 2016. Lastly, the position is undergoing a bit of a reformation with the addition of tall, rangy guys. Curtis, Hibbler and Tisdale are all guys that are tall, and long and could affect passing lanes with their reach. While Curtis already has the bulk, it is expected Hibbler and Tisdale will get there as well.

Just a few weeks ago linebacker was a major concern for Ole Miss, but two solid additions later this position looks to be on par with the other units that make up the landshark defense. A solid haul of backer in the ’17 recruiting cycle to replace the likes of Mageo and eventually Gates, paired with the talented youth on the roster and this spot will be productive for years to come.