New faces, new scheme in Rebel linebackers room

Published 1:29 pm Friday, March 8, 2019


OXFORD – Ole Miss finalized the hire of inside linebackers coach Jeff Koonz on Thursday, filling the final assistant coaching vacancy on the staff. Koonz joins Tyrone Nix, who was hired in mid-February to coach outside linebackers. The Rebel linebacker room now looks a whole lot different now than it did a few months ago.

A lot of the players are the same, but everything else seems to be changing. With the hire of Mike MacIntyre to run the defense, Ole Miss is moving to a 3-4 defense, meaning a whole new system, and now a whole new set of coaches to teach that system. For a unit that’s had its struggles in recent years, allowing over 480 yards-per-game last season, they have been very receptive to the defensive transformation in the spring.

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“They want (change). When you have a team like what we’ve had defensively, they’ve struggled somewhat in the past. They’re looking for change,” Nix said. “They’re looking for opportunities to be more productive and help us come out with more wins. They’ve been open to all new ideas.”

Mohamed Sanogo, the team’s leading tackler from middle linebacker last year, and Willie Hibbler will man the two interior linebacker spots. Hibbler, a starter last year at outside linebacker, is one of players making the transition from outside to inside. The two, first-team outside linebacker slots have been rotating between Sam Williams, Qaadir Sheppard and Charles Wiley.

Sanogo said the changes, from his perspective, are not too different. They’re more significant on the outside linebackers. A lot of those guys are transitioning from playing defensive end, where their every-down job was to play in the trenches. Now, they’re going to have to cover.

“We’re not robots any longer. We’re not just guys that are going to put their hands in the dirt. We’re going to be a little more multiple,” Nix said. “That means being involved in coverage at times and rushing the passer at times.”

Working with Nix has been intense, but good, according to Sanogo. “If you make a mistake, he’s going to be on you, but if you do good he’ll be on you too, in a good way. I like it.” Soon, he’ll get to meet his new coach, Jeff Knoonz.

Koonz was officially hired Thursday. He spent the last two years at North Texas, working as a linebackers coach there before a promotion to co-defensive coordinator after last season. Before arriving in Texas, he served as the co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach under Tommy Tuberville at the University of Cincinnati.

“Coach Koonz has a proven track record of success as a recruiter and defensive coach,” said head coach Matt Luke. “His coaching style and personality make him a perfect for our staff. As we complete our coaching roster, these changes have created terrific staff chemistry, and we are excited to continue our momentum throughout the remainder of spring drills and into the season.”

The team had not met Koonz yet, as of post-practice on Thursday. He’ll be a welcomed addition to a unit that’s seen a lot of turnover over the past three months. But when you’ve struggled in the past, change isn’t exactly a bad thing.