April 13, 2011 8:29:00 AM
OXFORD -- Less than a week ago after a particularly disappointing practice, Mississippi linebacker D.T. Shackelford was among the team''s most outspoken players, pushing his teammates to raise their performance.
The coaches weren''t surprised. Houston Nutt called him one of the unquestioned team leaders. Defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix marveled at how a still relatively young player could command so much respect.
But now that leadership almost certainly will be lost for the upcoming season.
Shackelford, a 6-foot-1, 244-pound junior, has a torn ACL in his right knee and will be out six to eight months.
"It hurts. It hurts a lot," Nutt said. "He''s so good."
Shackelford, who has battled multiple injuries throughout his career, made 48 tackles last season, including nine for a loss and five sacks while splitting time between linebacker and defensive end.
He was expected to start next season. His combination of size and speed was supposed to be one of the focal points of a defense that''s trying to rebound from a terrible 2010 season, when the Rebels gave up an SEC-worst 35.2 points per game.
Shackelford was injured in a position drill during Monday''s practice and an MRI afterward revealed the extent of the injury. He''s expected to have surgery in the next two weeks.
"The thing about this game is you''re always a play away," Nutt said. "Sometimes players don''t believe that, but it''s true."
Now Ole Miss will need more production from sophomores Mike Marry and Clarence Jackson, along with redshirt freshman Ralph Williams, who were the three starting linebackers during Tuesday''s practice. Defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix says he also expects incoming freshman C.J. Johnson, a five-star recruit according to Rivals.com, to have a role immediately.
The Rebels are also without junior linebacker Joel Kight, who had surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his knee. Kight is expected to be ready for fall practice.
"Injuries are something that''s unpredictable," Nix said. "Unfortunately for us, it happened to (Shackelford). It just presents an opportunity for others to step up and rise to the occasion."
Marry said Shackelford''s injury left the team shaken, but the veteran''s perseverance was evident from the moment he was hurt. Even as Shackelford was being helped off the field, he was encouraging teammates.
"He''s a big part of our team," Marry said. "He''s a leader on the field and off the field. He does everything right. When the team''s messing up he''s the one stepping up to get everybody back on track to finish practice the right way. It''s hard not having him out here -- it''s different in the meeting room."
Williams called Shackelford his "big brother."
"He''s helped me grow into a better football player," Williams said. "The excitement and energy he brings to the game and practice -- I definitely missed that out here today."
The Rebels are in their final week of spring practice and will play the annual Grove Bowl spring game on Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. The team''s defense has taken a beating during the spring. Cornerback Marcus Temple and defensive linemen Wayne Dorsey, Carlton Martin and Bryon Bennett are all out with assorted injuries.
But Nix refused to use the injuries as a crutch.
"You have to accept the challenge," Nix said. "And move on."
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