The moment outside linebacker D.T. Shackelford’s injury proved to be season-threatening, distress signals circulated throughout Ole Miss’s football team.
Offensive coordinator David Lee said the severity of Shackelford’s knee injury, which is expected to sideline him for his senior season, felt like a shot to the figurative heart of the football program.
Not only was he an outstanding linebacker -- and arguably the Rebels’ best player -- he was a tremendous leader. On a team lacking a ton of seniors, losing an emotional leader like Shackelford is devastating.
However, in the weeks since Shackelford’s freak ACL tear, coach Houston Nutt has found some potential candidates who could step into Shackelford’s leadership role.
Right now, Nutt is relying on veteran defensive ends Wayne Dorsey and Jason Jones. Dorsey, a senior, enrolled at Ole Miss last January and played in nine games in 2010, starting four.
Jones, a junior, played in 12 games last season, starting four.
Neither is a household name for the Rebels, but Nutt said he saw both step up in place of Shackelford shortly after he went down.
“They showed real signs [of becoming team leaders],” Nutt said.
Sophomore Mike Marry, who worked some in Shackelford’s spot after he went down this spring, also took on a leadership role for the team during that latter parts of spring practice, Nutt said.
One guy who could provide that leadership spark this fall is senior defensive end Kentrell Lockett. Lockett, who was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA after tearing his ACL last fall, missed all of spring practice, but is someone Nutt said he’s really hoping steps up soon.
It shouldn’t be hard for Lockett to grab the attention of his teammates. He’s the most experienced guy on Ole Miss’ roster and has great locker-room presence.
While each of these players could become dynamic leaders for this team, finding someone with the same electricity Shackelford possessed seems like a long shot.
“D.T. just took complete ownership,” Nutt said. “It was just unbelievable the way he went about things.”
That won’t easy to replace.
As for finding someone to fill his playing shoes, besides a little work from Marry, the Rebels also rotated sophomore Clarence Jackson and redshirt freshman Ralph Wilson in at Shackelford’s position this spring.
The player to keep an eye on this fall will be incoming freshman C.J. Johnson, who was the top recruit out of the state of Mississippi in 2010. He accumulated 149 tackles and two interceptions as a high school senior and despite playing inside linebacker he should be able to move outside.
Johnson has the skill to come in and immediately contribute, but developing his leadership qualities will be the next step in his maturation process.