Posted: 11:32 a.m. Friday, Aug. 23, 2013
By The Ghost of Jay Cutler
What could have been a liability turned into a pretty reliable unit. Mike Marry is what Mike Marry is, and that's a big, reliable tackler who is adept at filling a gap and stuffing the run up the middle. He stayed consistent and true in that mission last year, 78 tackles, 10.5 tackles for a loss, 2.5 sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and a game-sealing interception against Auburn. He was tremendous in particular against Pitt in the BBVA Compass bowl where he had seven tackles, four tackles for a loss, a forced fumble, and a sack - but, then again, it's Pitt. Marry can struggle against nimbler, faster teams, but when tasked to be the player around which this defense operates, especially against the run, he's more than adept.
The real story of the Rebel linebacking corps though was the emergence of Denzel Nkemdiche from an undersized tweener without a real role on the team to an all-SEC linebacker. Denzel led the team in tackles with 82, had 13.0 tackles for a loss, 3.0 sacks, three interceptions, four forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Despite being an couple inches shorter and 25 pounds lighter than your typical BCS-level outside linebacker, Nkemdiche emerged as the star of the defense. Whether it's the scheme, his football proclivity, or both, Denzel is simply very adept at being in the right place at the right time and putting himself in a position to make a play. He hits hard, he forces turnovers, and he, despite his size, manages to find his way into opposing backfields with some regularity.
Behind those two (Dave Wommack ran a 4-2-5 last season, and the hybrid "Huskie" position was covered in our safeties preview) were Joel Kight, Serderius Bryant, and Keith Lewis, all of which saw action in all 13 games in reserve roles. Kight tallied 44 tackles, with 3.0 for a loss, a sack, and a fumble recovery. Bryant notched 28 tackles with 3.5 for a loss. Lewis had 22 tackles and 0.5 for a loss.
Everyone aside from Joel Kight returns. Marry and Nkemdiche are expected to combine to form one of the SEC's more adept linebacker duos, while Bryant and Lewis have been receiving rave reviews during fall camp. Their progress from year one under Dave Wommack to year two has been noted, and they are likely to contribute more often and, presumably, more effectively this season than last. It is important to ask how the linebacker corps will fare with the Rebels losing a pair of starting defensive tackles to graduation (Uriah Grant and Gilbert Peña) and with Issac Gross nursing a sports hernia, but if the defensive line can perform at the level it did last season then expect similar performances out of the linebackers in 2013 as we saw in 2012.
The Incoming Class
With Memphis product Marcus Robinson not making it to campus as a grades casualty, meaning that Rashawn "Ray Ray" Smith out of Florence, Alabama is the lone incoming linebacker for 2013. Ray Ray is 6'3" and 200 pounds, meaning he has the frame to grow into a nicely sized linebacker with time. I wager that Smith is a likely redshirt candidate