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Gates adjusts to new leadership role

DeMarquis Gates had a quietly productive season last fall.

On a defense that included the likes of Robert Nkemdiche, Denzel Nkemdiche, C.J. Johnson, Mike Hilton and Trae Elston, it was Gates, Ole Miss’ rising junior linebacker, who led the Rebels with 76 tackles while alternating between the middle linebacker spot and the stinger, or outside, position.

With Johnson and Denzel Nkemdiche now gone, Gates is the most experienced option among the linebacking corps despite having just four starts to this point, all of them coming in Denzel’s place a season ago. He’s made it a point to embrace his newfound role.

“A lot more responsibility is on you,” Gates said. “You’ve got to step up to the plate and be a leader. I like being the leader of the defense.”

Gates, who mainly played special teams as a freshman before taking on a larger role on the defense toward the end of last season, is a favorite to grab a starting job with Ole Miss having to find two new starters at linebacker now that Johnson and Denzel Nkemdiche have run out of eligibility. The Rebels also have a pair of additions coming in the summer who are expected to contribute immediately in graduate transfer Rommel Mageo, who led Oregon State in tackles last season, and Iowa Western CC transfer Detric Bing-Dukes, a former Georgia signee.

Gates said he’ll welcome the competition at a position where Ole Miss needs it. Terry Caldwell, Temario Strong, Tayler Polk and Ray Ray Smith got limited snaps in reserve roles last season, Shawn Curtis and Willie Hibler, a converted tight end, are redshirt freshmen, and Donta Evans is the only linebacker the Rebels signed from the prep ranks in this year’s recruiting class.

“Both of them (Mageo and Bing-Dukes) are coming from other colleges, so they’ve been in college play before,” Gates said. “I’m sure they won’t have any problems learning the defense and getting accustomed to how things work around here. If they come in with a working mindset, it should be no problem.”

Versatile option
Gates continues to work at both linebacker positions this spring, something he’s grown accustomed to since signing with Ole Miss out of Lovejoy (Georgia) High in 2014. Gates said he doesn’t necessarily prefer one over the other, and going back and forth has also helped the rangy 6-foot-2, 217-pounder get in tune mentally with the rest of the defense.

“Now it’s pretty much easy for me,” said Gates, who notched a career-high 14 tackles in Ole Miss’ win over LSU last season. “Now I know where my help is coming from on the backside. I know where my Huskie (nicker corner) is coming from and where the corner is coming from, so now I just know the defense as a whole by learning both sides of the ball.”

His coaches are comfortable with him wherever Gates lines up.

“He’s by far the best linebacker at this point, but he’s the most experienced linebacker and I’ve got him running both mike and stinger to cover ourselves at both ends,” defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said. “He’s been very steady and very consistent for us out there. He’s turned into a really good football player.”

With a heightened level of comfort in the defense, Gates is raising the expectations for himself come the fall.

“I think this is going to be a blowout season,” Gates said. “I just have to take what I learned from last year and make an effort for this year to step it up a little bit. Take more upon myself to do more — more tackles, more picks, more everything to help the team win. Hopefully that can help us take our team to the next level.”