Anyone who watched Ole Miss football in 2011, or just happened to catch a glimpse of the SEC standings, knows the Rebels need all the help they can get in 2012. That goes double for the renovation of the league's worst defense. But whatever boost the D gets this fall, it's not going to come from its emotional leader, senior linebacker D.T. Shackelford, who confirmed today that he will be sidelined for the second season in a row by a lingering knee injury.
Shackelford initially tore his ACL last spring, on the heels of a sophomore season in which he'd started the final six games and emerged as arguable the best player on the defense at middle linebacker, leading the team in sacks following a Freshman All-SEC campaign in 2009. He underwent surgery to repair the knee shortly after the injury in April 2011; that was followed by a second surgery in February, long after his projected return to the field, due to continued swelling.
Days after the injury, Shackelford became the first non-senior to win the Chucky Mullins Courage Award, after the former Rebel who was paralyzed and later died as a result of injuries he suffered in a game in 1989, and granted the No. 38 jersey in Mullins' honor. Last month, he told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger that he fully expected to be back in time for the start of preseason drills, but with practice kicking off Friday and the season opener less than a month away, he decided attempting to play at 75 to 80 percent health wasn't worth the risk. As of now, he still plans to use his final year of eligibility in 2013.
Instead, the starting job will likely fall again to junior Mike Marry, who started ten games and led the team in tackles last year in Shackelford's absence. That's not exactly a ringing endorsement: The Rebels allowed at least 200 yards rushing in eight different games and finished dead last in the SEC in rushing defense, total defense, scoring defense, sacks and tackles for loss. (They were next-to-last in the other two major categories, pass efficiency defense and takeaways.) Seven of Ole Miss' eight conference losses came by at least two touchdowns; the season-ending Egg Bowl flop at Mississippi State came by four. Last month, first-year coach Hugh Freeze effectively admitted in his turn at SEC media days that he thought he had a more talented defense last year at Arkansas State than the one he inherited from Houston Nutt in Oxford. It just got a little bit harder to prove him wrong.