Sanogo aims to turn veteran linebacking corps into defensive strength

HOOVER, ALA — Mohamed Sanogo has grown weary of hearing how bad the Ole Miss defense is.

But it comes with the territory for a group that finished 121st in total defense a season ago. Only eight teams in the FBS had more putrid numbers than the Rebels. They gave up 6.32 yards per play and 483 yards per game.

There was undoubtedly a talent deficiency that was perhaps unfair to pin solely on former Wesley McGriff, but as the season wore on his firing became imminent as Ole Miss defended team in a manner that couldn’t possibly be blamed solely on a lack of talent. McGriff was ousted and Mike Macintyre was brought in — a man with a reputation of doing a lot with a little.

Basic fundamental improvement will suffice to start.

“I think when we take the field against Memphis,” head coach Matt Luke said. “I think you’ll see a fundamentally sound defense. They are lined up in the right spot. Their eyes are in the right spot.”

Macintyre is essentially starting from square one, armed with 3-4 scheme and a thin — though decently experienced on the surface — depth chart. Every starter on Ole Miss’ defense two deep is an upperclassmen. Macintyre has won at San Jose State, one of the toughest jobs in major college football. He went to a PAC 12 Championship game at Colorado. This will be no easy challenge, but with the program having boasted of three of the worst defensive seasons in recent program history, immediate improvement is expected. It is certainly expected by Sanogo, who evolved into a vocal leader in a season that saw him make 112 tackles a season ago, a mark that led the team and was 43 clear of Zedrick Woods’ second place mark of 79.

“Everyone has talked about how bad the defense was,” Sanogo said. “Even before I got there, people were talking about how bad the linebacking corps was. It has now turned into one of the strengths of our defense. We are trying to prove people wrong and turn heads.”

It would be hard to argue with Sanogo’s assertion that the linebacking core has developed from a weakness to at least a net neutral — and possibly a strength. Sanogo mans one of the two inside linebacking spots next to senior Willie Hibbler with sophomore Jacquez Jones behind him and junior Donta Evans backing up Hibbler. Sanogo’s surroundings have changed from a season ago. He was pushed into a leadership role as freshmen Kevontae’ Ruggs and Jones manned the other linebacking slots for parts of the year. Sanogo was the de facto veteran on the field as a sophomore. He helped guide those two through their first season of college football. Ruggs has left the program and Jones is a year wiser. Sanogo is now an upperclassmen and his counterparts have matured as well.

“If you look at our roster now, it is a bunch of juniors and seniors,” Sanogo said. “Jacques is a great football player. The culture the linebackers have created is awesome.”

The most drastic personnel change with MacIntyre’s new system can be found flanked outside of Sanogo. The 3-4 scheme calls for two more linebackers to play on the edge. Naturally, most of the men that man this spot played defensive end last year. While not all of them fit the physical profile of what Macintyre would ideally like the position to look like, Senior Qaadir Sheppard is a good indicator of what kind of frame and skillset this position calls for. At 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, Sheppard can rush the passer and handle pass coverage responsibilities in space. His sleeker, more nimble frame aids in doing that.

“He’s a very good athlete, so he doesn’t look awkward,” Luke said. “Sometimes we take a defensive end and move them in space, they look awkward. He’s able to play out there in space and also come down and rush the passer. Freeing him up and getting him in a little bit more space, he seemed much more comfortable out there. He has ability to play coverage.

“That’s the unique thing about this 3-4, is you never really know where the fourth rusher is coming from. I think you’ll see him rush the passer some and dropping into coverage some, and I think that kind of fits his game.”

Charles Wiley, who is an inch shorter and the same weight as Sheppard, is behind him on the depth chart with junior college transfer Sam Williams and Brendan Williams manning the opposite outside linebacker spot. With a good bit of depth and experience on the defensive line, the linebacking corps will likely end up being an indicator as to how improved this defense ends up being, or if it remains among the worst in college football.

“We’re turning it into one of the strengths of the team,” Sanogo said. “We are moving forward. We want this position to be a positive for the Ole Miss Rebels.”