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Practice report: Knox talks early-season progress, Koonz adjusts without Sanogo

Ole Miss got in the win column over the weeken, but it came at a cost. Star inside linebacker Mohamed Sanogo broke his ankle on the fourth play of the game in a punt-cover situation and will miss 10 weeks. It’s unlikely Sanogo will play again this season.

Inside linebackers coach Jeff Koonz is now tasked with minimizing the vacancy Sanogo leaves behind. The good news for the first-year assistant is, unlike in years past, Koonz has adequate personnel to at least somewhat fill the hole. Sophomore Jacquez Jones led the team in tackles with nine. Donta Evans, who immediately replaced Sanogo on the field, is a junior with a decent bit of experience and Willie Hibbler is a senior who has played significant snaps. All three will continue to rotate at the position, along with junior college Lakia Henry, who has looked as good as advertised though two games.

“Momo goes down the third play of the game and guys stepped up, because they prepared that way,” Koonz said. “That’s my job as a coach. I have to make sure the next guy is capable and there is no drop off in production and technique. I think you saw glimpses of that on Saturday night.”

Sanogo is the cliched quarterback of the defense. He got the calls in and was responsible for checks. His running mate, Henry, shared some of those check responsibilities, but his duties were not as extensive. That will change going forward.

“Momo is a very vocal guy,” Koonz said. “But Willie makes checks, Jacquez makes checks and Lakia makes checks. Both guys have responsibilities. Not just the Mike linebacker. That also adds to the importance of making those checks and those calls. When one guy goes down, you are still holding everyone accountable.”

Koonz admitted there were a couple missed checks and calls after Sanogo went down, but likes the progress of Henry and the rest of his linebackers. Replacing a player of Sanogo’s caliber is a tall task, but Koonz won’t accept a dip in production.

— Just to the left or right of those inside backers often stands Luke Knox, the redshirt freshman who has become quite the surprising story on a defense that has looked better than most anticipated through two games. Knox wasn’t talked about much in fall camp, mostly because he missed the first two weeks with a hamstring injury. But once healthy, Knox made his presence felt, just as he did in the spring and it has paid off for him in the form of the valuable currency that is playing time. Knox recorded three tackles against Memphis and recovered a fumble last week at home against Arkansas. He’s around the football on most plays and it has caught the eye of Mike MacIntyre and outside linebackers coach Tyrone Nix.

“I really like playing fast,” Knox said. “I think that is why I am in on so many plays. I am trying to get to the ball as fast as I can.”

At a position occupied mostly by converted defensive ends, Knox fits that frame at 6-foot-3, 233 pounds. He’s put on roughly 20 pounds since arriving on campus in the summer of 2018. Knox is probably contributing more frequently and earlier than Matt Luke and the Ole Miss coaching staff originally thought, though they’d never admit that. But he’s established himself as a regular contributor on the edge behind Sam Williams on the strong side. Knox, of course, is the brother of Buffalo Bills and former Ole Miss tight end Dawson Knox. He’s talked to his brother often through the first two weeks of the season. Dawson is quite busy himself in Buffalo, but has offered advice on life in the SEC and what to expect.

— Snoop Conner and Derrick Nix offered their thoughts on the running back rotation, competition and wearing teams down late in games.

Injury notes:

— Braylon Sanders was not at practice on Tuesday. The junior receiver tweaked a hamstring in the first half against Memphis and did not play in the Arkansas game. His status for Saturday’s game is not known.

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