Key players return among the linebackers as with most positions.
Linebackers by nature are to be around the ball making plays. Many times defensive linemen are tying up blockers just to aid their teammates in that effort.
The 4-2-5 allows for only two linebackers on the field, but those two – Denzel Nkemdiche and Mike Marry – were among the top three tacklers on the team.
They should fill those starting jobs again in 2013.
Nkemdiche started the season with a bang against Central Arkansas and never let off the gas. He became the Rebels’ top play-maker, and his energy and out-going personality quickly made him a fan favorite.
He was the team leader in tackles (82), tackles for loss (13) and forced fumbles (4) and shared the team lead in interceptions (3).
Nkemdiche should be better with a season under his belt.
Marry was third on the team with 78 tackles and second to Nkemdiche with 10.5 tackles for loss.
Marry is a physical player, but his speed is a problem in pass coverage. He shined in the bowl game against Pittsburgh, which wasn’t among the fastest teams the Rebels faced in 2012.
There are two losses at the position in Joel Kight, a senior, and Ralph Williams, a third-year sophomore who announced earlier this month he would not return.
Williams had 49 tackles and four tackles for loss as a redshirt freshman – including a big play near the goalline at Fresno State — but couldn’t stick on the field last year whether at linebacker or in his defensive end experiment. He appeared in 10 games but had only four tackles, fewer than walk-on Carlos Davis had in six games as a special teams player.
Serderius Bryant, a rising junior, is a good tackler, and Keith Lewis provides a bigger body when the Rebels go to a 4-3. They will again provide depth. Bryant had 28 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss last year, and Lewis had 22 tackles.
A player to watch here is D.T. Shackelford, an emotional leader and all-conference caliber player who is trying to make a comeback after two years away because of knee surgeries.
The spring may tell us a lot about how much Shackelford can contribute.
It may also tell us about how much Channing Ward develops at end. If it’s a big jump for Ward, and if freshman Robert Nkemdiche is a quick study and early contributor, it wouldn’t be shocking to see C.J. Johnson line up more at linebacker.
The signing class includes three-star linebackers Marcus Robinson and Ray Ray Smith.