Jon Sumrall, by his own admission, is an old-school football coach.
Sure, he takes measurables into account when evaluating prospects, but he’s a big believer in those unquantifiable characteristics of scouting: instincts, leadership, confidence and toughness. An impressive 40-yard dash time is nice, as is the prototypical height and weight.
But they’re not the be-all and end-all.
“I think some of the most overrated measurables for being a linebacker are height and 40 time,” he said. “Because the last time I checked, you don’t have to be real tall to make a tackle, and also the last time I checked, if our linebackers are running 40 yards to make tackles, we’ve got problems. Those are two characteristics that I’m not as high on. I care, but sometimes you have to understand what you’re evaluating in a linebacker. It’s a unique position. The measurable piece only tells you part of the story.”
Sumrall has a history of success to back up his approach. He helped lead nationally-ranked defenses at Tulane and Troy, where, for the past three seasons, he carried the title of assistant head coach. He worked primarily with the linebackers and served as special teams coordinator.
Troy was among the league leaders in both the Sun Belt and NCAA in multiple defensive categories on its way to a school-record 11 wins in 2017. The Trojans were first in the nation in red zone defense (.614), second in tackles for loss per game (8.6), seventh in rushing defense (105.3), 11th in scoring defense and 24th in total defense per game (336.6).
Sumrall was hired by Luke in the off-season to replace Bradley Dale Peveto as Ole Miss linebackers coach.
“I want to see guys with good instincts,” Sumrall said. “Most importantly, tackle the football. Wherever the football is at, I want guys that can tackle. At the end of the day, I’m looking for guys that can defeat blocks, make tackles, find the ball with their instincts and are natural football players. Those are the most important things you’re hunting.
“Ideally, longer guys are good and faster guys are good, but sometimes I think the measurable piece can be overhyped. Maybe one of the best linebackers I’ve ever coached is a kid named Nico Marley when I was at Tulane. He’s all about 5-9, 200 pounds. When he was a freshman with me at Tulane, he was Freshman Player of the Year in the conference. Other than Tulane, he had no other Division-I football offers. That didn’t bother me because I knew after we got him people would wonder why they didn’t recruit him. I don’t want all 5-9 linebackers. But I want guys who have instincts and can tackle the football and have some confidence and leadership about them. You want guys in that position group that can set the tone from a character and toughness standpoint for your football team.”
The Ole Miss linebackers could certainly use a shot of Sumrall’s attitude. The Rebels were 124th in the nation and next to last in the SEC last season against the run. They allowed 245.33 yards per game. The 2016 season was more or less the same. Ole Miss was 120th nationally (246.33 yards per game) and last in the SEC.
Sumrall has his work cut out for him. The position group he inherited is widely viewed as among the weakest on the team, and that was before Ole Miss lost its leading tackler, DeMarquis Gates, to graduation. Gone, too, is Tayler Polk, who was ninth among all defenders last season with 39 tackles.
By the end of the year, Ole Miss was utilizing Gates and Polk as its starters almost exclusively.
“In everything we do, I’m demanding,” Sumrall said. “I’m not asking for perfection; I’m asking for perfect effort every day. I want guys who continually want to get better and want to improve and are committed in how they invest their time. I tell the guys that I coach all the time, ‘I can tell what’s important to you by how you invest your time and how you invest your money.’ I’m demanding of my guys. I’m going to coach them hard and love them just as hard. I want to be there for them. Anything they’ve got going on in their lives away from the game, they know my door’s always open. They can sit down and talk about real-life issues, too.
“The biggest thing, I’m all about committing to the process of being the best they can be day in and day out; investing their time and giving themselves every opportunity to be successful. I’m going to always push them to be their best, to try to get everything I can out of them to be the best they can be. I’m probably a little bit more old school than my age. I love the game of football, and I feel privileged to have the opportunity to coach and hopefully make an impact on these guys.”