August 30, 2009

Freshmen linebackers earn spots in Rebs' rotation

On the first day of fall camp, Joel Kight wasn't merely surprised at the speed of the college game.

He was downright flabbergasted.

Ole Miss' freshman linebacker didn't panic. Neither did fellow freshman D.T. Shackelford. Three weeks later, with the season opener at Memphis a mere week away, both young defenders are in line for major playing time this season.

"That first day, it was fast," Kight said, laughing." It was really fast, but the more you're out there, the more you slow down. It's still fast. I haven't even played my first game."

"Now I understand when people say the game is more mental than physical," Shackelford added. "You have to know your checks, your plays, your gap assignment, what the defensive line is doing. You have to know a lot of stuff. Mentally I think I'm getting there. Physically, I think I could play. You just have to keep on getting stronger. Once you get complacent, that's when you start to get beat."

Kight and Shackelford have been two of the brightest spots in what has been a very positive preseason camp for the eighth-ranked Rebels. Kight will open the season behind Patrick Trahan on Ole Miss' depth chart while Shackelford beat out Jason Jones for the No. 2 job behind starting middle linebacker Jonathan Cornell.

"I'm fairly surprised," Cornell said. "They're pretty sharp. It doesn't matter really who you are, coming into college is such a transition. But these guys, they seem like there was no transition. They just hopped in, learned it and executed."

Allen Walker is ahead of Lamar Brumfield at the other linebacker spot, and both of those players have significant playing experience. With Tony Fein and Ashlee Palmer gone from a year ago, the rookies' emergence was critical.

"We expected them to come in and contribute and be in the rotation," Ole Miss defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix said. "That's why we were so tickled come signing day because Mike Markuson did a great job recruiting D.T. Shackelford along with Coach (Houston) Nutt and the rest of the staff. Joel Kight was a guy we targeted from the beginning. We felt like he could play. They have just met expectations so far, and they're right on schedule.

"If we played tomorrow, they would play. If they don't get hurt and continue to improve, we're going to see them in the ballgame. So far, they've handled everything I've asked them to do. Now, certain packages they're not as involved in as other packages, but for the most part, I just call what the defense requires in certain situations and they go out there and execute the call."

Kight and Shackelford said the confidence being shown in them by Nix and the rest of the Ole Miss coaching staff has only motivated their desire to dig deeper into the playbook and spend more time mastering their craft.

"They expect the best out of us and as long as I'm trying our best, it's supposed to happen," Kight said. "As an athlete, you want to think like that, whether it's true or not. You want to feel like you can do it. Coach Nix has shown his trust in me and D.T. and all we have to do is trust ourselves and go out and make plays for our team."

"That's my motto I live by," Shackelford said. "You have to get better every day. Since I was younger, my mama and daddy told me to not get complacent. I just want to keep working hard. The minute you slack off, some people are going to get better than you. The minute you get the big head, that's when you're about to go down. I always just try to stay humble and whatever the coaches tell me to do, that's what I try to do."

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