A natural look of concern spread across Mike MacIntyre’s face when he saw Mohamed Sanogo down on the grass, writhing in pain in the early minutes of Ole Miss’ 31-17 win over Arkansas.
The junior inside linebacker was injured on a punt cover play after the first series of the game, one in which Ole Miss went three-and-out. Sanogo broke his ankle and will miss 10 weeks, head coach Matt Luke confirmed at his weekly Monday press conference. Sanogo will have surgery on Tuesday.
Sanogo became a leader — and the leading tackler — on a putrid 2018 Ole Miss defense. He is the undisputed leader of this year’s version. It’s a catastrophic loss for the Rebels defense, a unit that has shown improvement in the first two weeks of the 2019 season. But it’s what happened as Sanogo was carted off the field that perhaps illustrated his value to his teammates and the gravity of the loss. A large portion of the Ole Miss sideline made their way onto the field to offer their best wishes to ‘the quarterback of the defense,’ as MacIntyre dubbed Sanogo.
“I said ‘wow,’” The first-year defensive coordinator recalled. “You don’t see that very often. That showed the tremendous amount of respect they have for the person he is. It is a big loss for us, not only as a player but emotionally for these kids.”
It’s unlikely Sanogo will return this season, though not impossible given the estimated recovery time. MacIntyre said Sanogo tried to motivate the team when he returned to the sideline. When he entered the facility on Monday, he asked MacIntyre what he could do to help while unable to contribute on the field.
Sanogo’s mere presence will aid the team more than if he were not around. But how does Ole Miss replace Sanogo on the field?
Donta Evans filled in for the first defensive series. After not playing a week ago, sophomore Jacquez Jones was affected by the injury the most. He led the team in tackles with nine. Willie Hibbler played a lot and Lakia Henry, Sanogo’s running mate at inside linebacker, rarely left the field.
“It reiterates what we’re always talking about, being ready to play,” head coach Matt Luke said. “Jacquez (Jones) wasn’t getting that many snaps, but he kept preparing. It can happen at any position, and you’re one play away from having to step in there.”
What will change from what we saw last week? Well, not much. Jones will be called into a larger role. He was named to the SEC’s all-freshman team last season. He tallied 36.5 tackles and five tackles for loss. He is very much an unfinished product in terms of his development, and he played by necessity on a team starved of SEC-caliber linebackers, but he flashed a good bit of upside.
“Jacquez won’t be able to replace MoMo in all the things he does, but we think he can be an excellent inside linebacker for us,” MacIntyre said.
Hibbler and Evans will continue to rotate in as well. One would think Henry will shoulder a similar workload as Sanogo did a year ago — meaning he won’t leave the field often. Sanogo is the most established linebacker on the roster. If there were a player worthy of dethroning him from such a title by the end of the year, it would be Henry, a junior college transfer who has looked as good as advertised through two games.
MacIntyre said he still feels good about the depth and will not move an outside linebacker to the inside, or any other somewhat drastic measure that is usually prompted by a lack of reinforcements. The bottom of the ripple effect is, essentially, more practice reps for redshirt freshman Ashanti Cistrunk. The lack of positional movement is partially a product of Ole Miss getting back to a full allotment of scholarships. It went a handful of games last season with fewer than 55 scholarship players. It is worth pointing out that the Rebels are one more injury away from being in a pinch at this slot, but for now, it’s status quo in terms of personnel.
MacIntyre requested that Sanogo become a player-coach type of figure for the men tasked with replacing his invaluable services. Sanogo gladly accepted the challenge. But Sanogo not being on the field means one of the guys he’s educating to replace him will be responsible for getting the calls in and making sure the defense is lined up correctly.
“Donta has been doing a job with that and Jacquez has been better,” MacIntyre said. “Lakia communicated better this game than he did last game. When Willie is in there, he does a fantastic job of communicating. Really, all of them have to step up. I rotated all of them in on first-team during camp on purpose.”
There’s no replacing a player like Sanogo, but MacIntyre and the defense are now responsible for mitigating the effects of his absence.