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Ole Miss’ Mohamed Sanogo, Kevontae’ Ruggs set to start opener at linebacker

The youth movement that was evident at the second level of Ole Miss’ defense during camp will become official in five days.

Sophomore Mohamed Sanogo and true freshman Kevontae Ruggs are set to get their first career starts at linebacker when the defense takes the field at Houston NRG’s Stadium against Texas Tech in the teams’ opener Saturday (11 a.m., ESPN). Sanogo will start in the middle while Ruggs will get the nod on the outside, cementing a rise up the depth chart that began midway through camp as Ole Miss trades experience for what coach Matt Luke and defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff consider to be their best playmakers at the Rebels’ most scrutinized position.

“You’re looking for that energy and toughness in guys that will fly around and hit you, and I think that’s what Momo and Ruggs have given us,” Luke said. “I’ve been very, very impressed with those guys flying around and bringing that energy. That’s what you need from your linebackers, flying around and making plays.”

While McGriff said the youngsters trotting out for the first defensive series is contingent on them having another consistent week of practice, they’ve flashed that in different ways since taking over as the first-team linebackers midway through camp. Senior Detric Bing-Dukes began the preseason atop the depth chart in the middle but wasn’t listed on the updated two-deep released Monday. The same goes for redshirt freshman Josh Clarke, who’s been passed by Willie Hibler on the outside.

Another true freshman, Jacquez Jones, is listed as Sanogo’s backup with redshirt freshman Zikerrion Baker behind him.

Sanogo, who played 11 games last season mostly on special teams, knows the defense as well as any linebacker on the roster and “makes very few mental mistakes,” McGriff said. He’s also improved his mobility after losing nearly 30 pounds since the end of last season and begins this season at 224 pounds.

“Right now, he’s going to be in the right spot more often than not. He’ll get us lined up, and his awareness is so great that he’ll be able to process on the run,” McGriff said. “A tremendous, tremendous problem solver. He’s got the size to get in there and anchor, but his knowledge of the game and the way he’s matured has really been surprising.”

McGriff is counting on Ruggs’ raw athleticism to make up for the freshman mistakes that are inevitable. The 6-foot-3, 202-pounder was often singled out by coaches as the most impactful linebacker in camp scrimmages, flashing the kind of speed and range that’s been lacking at a position where no returning player had more than 24 tackles last season.

“He’s got excellent length for the position, and I don’t think this kid gets tired. He runs all day,” McGriff said. “He’s just a natural football player. Plays with tremendous bend. He’ll make some freshman mistakes and we’ve got to live with it. It may cause my hair to come out a little bit, but he’ll make more plays than he gives up.”

Luke also emphasized the importance of both players’ ability to play in space against a Texas Tech offense that’s notorious for throwing the ball around. The Red Raiders ranked sixth nationally in pass attempts last season and ninth in passing yards.

“We’ve got to make sure we keep the menu small for them to allow them guys to play fast and play with some confidence,” McGriff said. “I’m excited to see these guys get out there for the first time, get their cleats in the grass and get going.”