September 9, 2008

Rebels shake up defensive line

Marcus Tillman was back at defensive end Tuesday afternoon and Greg Hardy was moving around as well as he has since having surgery to repair a stress fracture in his foot.

Throw in the continued progress of defensive tackles Peria Jerry and Ted Laurent, who were both working with the starting unit Tuesday, and Ole Miss' once-vaunted defensive line just might finally be rounding into form.

"Hopefully, I feel like they're going to be a big part of the success we're going to have this season," Tillman said.

Ole Miss' front four on the defensive line Tuesday consisted of Tillman, Jerry, Laurent and Kentrell Lockett. Emmanuel Stephens, who had started the season's first two games, was working with the second unit Tuesday, backing up Tillman.

"We've got a little bit more depth than we had two weeks ago," Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said. "(Tillman) has been awesome. He's been a warrior for us to move around. A lot of young men couldn't handle that."

"We feel like we're getting a lot of guys healthy," Ole Miss defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix said. "Peria's back hopefully 100 percent and that gives us an opportunity to move Marcus Tillman back to defensive end. Marcus is a bigger body. He can play the run. He's really sound fundamentally. There's probably not as much speed as you look for out of the position, but he's a guy you can count on every snap to do the right things."

Hardy, dressed in shorts and a t-shirt and finally out of the boot he's worn since surgery, was jogging and going through light agility drills.

"We'll see what happens," said Nutt, who has indicated in recent days that Hardy could be about two weeks away, making it possible that the pass-rushing standout could be back in the lineup in time for the Rebels' Sept. 20 Southeastern Conference opener against Vanderbilt.

Tillman, who started Ole Miss' first two games at defensive tackle, has five tackles so far this season, despite playing at 260 pounds, which is a little light for the interior.

"I'm excited about (the move)," Tillman said. "I plan to help the team. I just have to get used to it and get the feel of it back. Some stuff was all right (Tuesday), but I'm just trying to get my steps and working on playing the option and that kind of stuff."

KICKING GAME GETS FOCUS TUESDAY: Nutt classified Tuesday's two-hour practice as a good one. The Rebels continued to look ahead to what they'll see from Samford Saturday and spent a lot of time focusing on special teams, particularly the kickoff return game, an area that has plagued Ole Miss through the first two games of the season.

"I thought we tuned in real good on Samford's personnel groupings and formations," Nutt said. "We tried to work real hard on kickoff returns. We've been a little bit disappointed there. We have to get that corrected. That's too much real estate right there to bobble that thing around and not get good field position. So we worked on that and worked on correcting mistakes again."

GREEN MOVES AHEAD AT CB: Marshay Green was working with the starting defense on Tuesday, moving in front of Dustin Mouzon on the depth chart opposite Cassius Vaughn.

"There's nothing like competition," Nutt said. "We're just trying to push everybody's buttons right now to get that full focus and to get them to compete. That doesn't mean that we're kicking him out. It means compete."

HODGE TAKES HOPE FROM WAKE LOSS: Ole Miss wide receiver Shay Hodge put a towel over his head during Wake Forest's game-winning drive this past Saturday. It was just too agonizing to watch.

However, Hodge saw things in the game film that gave him hope and confidence.

"You can take something from the Wake game," Hodge said. "They're a top 20 team. It shows we can play with anybody. They probably have one of the best secondaries we'll play all year with Alphonso Smith being so good and we threw the ball all over them and stuff. Going into the SEC, they've got one of the better secondaries or maybe the best secondary we'll play, so we take a lot from it."

Hodge caught a touchdown pass from Jevan Snead Saturday, giving him three for the season and extending his streak of games with a touchdown catch to five.

"I'm trying to be the best," Hodge said. "I'm trying to get over the hump and be one of the best wide receivers in the SEC. It's just confidence to me. I think I've got all the tools."

Nutt said he'd love to see the touchdown streak extend, and he won't be surprised if it does.

"He's a competitor," Nutt said. "He's physical. I love his nose for the ball. He wants it, and I want him to have it, too."

That confidence grew at Wake Forest when Snead threw a pass into the end zone that Hodge came back to get for a 28-yard touchdown reception.

"It meant a lot to me," Hodge said. "It means somebody trusts in you and believes in you. We talk about it a lot. When he first got the job, I was like, 'Jevan, you know if you ever get in trouble, and it's just me and one person, I'm there.' He threw it to me like that. That meant a lot."

SAMFORD PREPS FOR REBELS: Samford practiced for about two hours in full pads Tuesday afternoon at Seibert Stadium in Birmingham, Ala. The Bulldogs are off to a 2-0 start for the first time since 2003.

"We have played two teams we probably should have beaten, but what we did was challenge our team to play hard and improve from the first game to the second game," Samford coach Pat Sullivan said. "Obviously, this week, going to Oxford to play Ole Miss will be a big jump in competition. But, we need to play these types of games."

Sullivan said the trip to Ole Miss is something his players are looking forward to.

"This is a great trip for our players and for our fans," Sullivan said. "There will be a great atmosphere. Houston has an outstanding football team. You can see that they are a quality football team. They have a transfer quarterback from Texas (Jevan Snead). Their right tackle on offense is probably a first-round draft choice. Defensively, they are big and strong up front."

Sullivan added that he is looking for his team to show improvement this week after this past Saturday's 62-0 drubbing of Faulkner.

"The thing that we want is for us to improve every week," Sullivan said. "We want to cut down on our mistakes, play as hard as we can, not turn the football over and then add it up at the end. That is what we will preach and hopefully that is what we will do. Our guys are excited to play, and I am looking forward to seeing them play."

REBEL RUMBLINGS: Garrett Ryan, who spent fall camp at defensive end and got some playing time at the position against Memphis, was working with the linebackers on Tuesday. …Ohio State transfer James Scott was not practicing Tuesday. Instead, the cornerback was still going through academic orientation.

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