His leg resting on a four-wheeled medical scooter, nestled amongst his teammates on the Ole Miss sideline sat inside linebacker Mohamed Sanogo.
He watched Ole Miss bludgeon Vanderbilt, 31-6. His defense bottled up Vanderbilt tailback Ke’Shawn Vaughn and a scuffling Commodore offense.
When healthy, the bench is a foreign environment for Sanogo. He rarely leaves the field. He made 112 tackles in 2018 on an under-manned Rebels defense and rarely was afforded time to catch his breath. But the quarterback and undisputed leader of the Ole Miss defense has been confined to his current perch for the last three weeks since he suffered a season-ending knee injury on a punt cover in the first quarter of the Rebels’ win over Arkansas.
As Sanogo was carted off the field that night, writhing in pain, his teammates left the sideline to offer their condolences and support. It was a somber moment and a catastrophic blow to a defense trying to rectify a poor reputation stemming from three previous seasons of futility. But the unit has not wilted. The defense has remained formidable against the run and has done well to mitigate the void left by Sanogo’s injury. That’s largely thanks to the play of fellow inside linebackers Lakia Henry and Jacquez Jones. The two combined for 23 tackles in a rout of Vanderbilt on Saturday evening.
“That was a really tough loss,” Henry said. “We all had to step up and assume bigger jobs and responsibilities.”
Henry made 15 tackes in the win over the Commodores. The junior college transfer has looked as good as advertised in the first half of the season. Henry was the top-ranked junior college linebacker in the country. He did not have the benefit of spring practice, a rarity for junior college signees, and arrived win Oxford this past summer. Initially, Henry floundered amongst a fluid depth chart early in fall camp. But as he got comfortable in defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre’s scheme, he ascended up the ranks. He started the season opener at Memphis. Now, like Sanogo became accustomed to, Henry rarely leaves the field. He’s now assuming to the leadership role Sanogo toted. Whether it’s getting the call in or pre-snap checks at the line of scrimmage, Henry’s plate is full.
“Lakia is starting to become more of a leader,” Matt Luke said. “He is starting to grow into that leadership role that makes those checks and calls. He made so many big plays tonight, even some stuff in the passing game that isn’t going to show up in the stat sheet. I thought he played really well tonight.”
Henry isn’t without guidance. Sanogo helps him throughout the week in practice and serves as a coach-like figure during games on the field during games. It has been a large load for Henry to shoulder, but a constant dialogue with Sanogo on the sideline has made it easier to digest.
“He sees what he sees and I see what I see,” Henry said. “If something is wrong, he helps show me how to fix it. He still a huge help on the field.”
Jones, a sophomore that was thrust into the spotlight as a freshman on a putrid defense devoid of competent linebacking play, has elevated his level of play since Sanogo went down. Like Henry, success didn’t come immediately for Jones. He recorded just one tackle on special teams against Memphis and didn’t play a defensive snap. When Sanogo exited the game a week later, he was called into a much larger role.
“Coach (Jeff) Koonz has done a phenomenal job with them,” MacIntyre said. “They are two young men that are starting to understand our defense too. Now, they are starting to understand the passing game with it. Momo is around all the time. He is into it. He is exactly what you would expect as a leader. He is as happy as they are. That is why he is such a great young man.”
Ole Miss hasn’t allowed a 100-yard rusher since Patrick Taylor ran for 129 in the season opener. The Rebels have faced the likes of Vandy’s Vaughn, Alabama’s Najee Harris, Arkansas’ Rakeem Boyd and a pair of capable Cal running backs in Macel Dancy and Chrstopher Brown. The defense has had well-documented issues in the secondary, but a once putrid rushing defense has improved drastically in MacIntyre’s first year, even in the absence of its leader Sanogo. Much of that is due to the fine play of Henry and Jones. The quiet destructively, productive season defensive tackle Benito Jones is putting together hasn’t hurt either.
Sanogo’s lame knee will likely keep him out for the remainder of this season, but the junior’s presence is still felt in a variety of ways. Sanogo’s voice is an aid to Henry and Jones. His keen eyes help offer wisdom. It’s nearly impossible to replace a player of Sanogo’s calendar. But Henry is doing his best to mimic Sanogo’s voice and leadership role. Together, he and Jones are mitigating the void Sanogo left behind.
“He is there mentally, still,” Henry said. “Not physically, but still very much there mentally. That’s big for us. It’s helped us a lot.”
photo credit: Joshua McCoy — Ole Miss Athletics