If not for the Oregon State graduate transfer -- plus the late addition of former Georgia signee Detric Bing-Dukes -- the Rebels' collection of middle linebackers would be a massive question mark entering the 2016 season.
“Thank God we’ve got [Mageo]. We had missed there,” Freeze said last week during the SEC car wash at ESPN headquarters. “You talk about question marks, man, I’m real anxious. We really need Rommel and Bing-Dukes to be able to play that ‘Mike’ linebacker for us. We really need it.”
C.J. Johnson was a solid middle linebacker for the Rebels, as was Denzel Nkemdiche on the outside before leaving the team late last season. Both were seniors in 2015, however, and the Rebels have limited returning experience at the position, aside from budding star DeMarquis Gates.
Should Mageo -- who led Oregon State with 87 tackles last season -- or Bing-Dukes hold down the middle linebacker spot adequately, Gates will be able to stay at outside linebacker, his natural position.
“It’s huge for us,” Freeze said of the middle linebacker’s role on the Ole Miss defense. “You’ve got to line everybody up, and you’ve obviously got to stop physical run games. I feel really good about our ‘Stinger’ linebacker. I think DeMarquis Gates is one of the best in the league. Terry Caldwell's a solid backup. Temario Strong. But we do not want to have to move Gates inside. We need one of those two guys -- or both of them, really -- to be able to do it.”
When Ole Miss lost David Luafatasaga to Utah on national signing day, the Rebels knew they had a major issue. Luafatasaga was the No. 17 overall prospect and No. 2 linebacker on this year’s ESPN Junior College 50, so he had the potential to become an immediate plug-and-play option.
As a result, the Rebels had to seek other alternatives after signing day. In March they announced the additions of both Mageo and Bing-Dukes, who left UGA after his redshirt freshman year and spent last season at Iowa Western Community College.
It was not an ideal situation, but Freeze believes the newcomers can fill the gaping void at the position. And that’s a big deal since Ole Miss’ coach likes what he sees at the other spots on the defensive depth chart.
“We recruited well in the secondary, I think. I think our young kids are going to be good. Defensive line, we’ve recruited well. We’re one shy of being at the depth we’d like to have, but we’ve got some really good players there. But linebacker we’d missed on,” he admitted.