September 23, 2008

Rebels gear up for Tebow

Ole Miss middle linebacker Jonathan Cornell didn't play in Ole Miss' 30-24 home loss to Florida last September. However, Cornell remembers the game vividly, in large part because of the dominating play of Gator quarterback Tim Tebow.

"I remember they ran the quarterback power a lot, and I was kind of disappointed we couldn't stop that," Cornell said. "I'm pretty sure that we'll work pretty hard in practice this week."

Tebow rushed 27 times for 166 yards and completed 20 of 34 passes for 261 more in Florida's win. Two of Tebow's carries resulted in touchdowns in a game that Ole Miss trailed by as few as three points midway through the fourth quarter. Ole Miss defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix wasn't in Oxford last year when Tebow tore up the Rebels, but he can relate.

"He tore us up at South Carolina," laughed Nix, who was the Gamecocks' defensive coordinator last season. "He does everything well. I think he throws well. He runs the ball well. He puts them in the right play. He doesn't make very many mistakes. He's smart. He's taking care of the football."

Last week, Ole Miss shut down Vanderbilt's Chris Nickson before knocking him out of the game in the Commodores' 23-17 win. While no one is comparing Nickson to last season's Heisman Trophy winner, Ole Miss is hopeful that the week spent preparing for Vanderbilt's running game carries over to defending Tebow.

"Both quarterbacks escape the pocket extremely well, so we had a lot of practice this past week and we'll have some this week on containing the quarterback," Cornell said. "I think containing the quarterback is really the focus, that and collapsing the pocket."

Ole Miss used two players _ quarterback Nathan Stanley and cornerback Derrick Herman to simulate Tebow on Tuesday, with Stanley playing the role of the Heisman Trophy winner on passing plays and Herman running the football.

"That's a hard deal," Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt said. "It's hard to simulate a Heisman Trophy winner. But they both mixed it in. That's the best we've got."

REBS HAVE LONG TUESDAY: Nutt said Ole Miss had a solid Tuesday work day practice, complete with solid concentration during the installation portions of the 2 -hour session.

"The scout teams did a good job for us today," Nutt said. "Boy, that's not easy."

Nutt said he felt like his team bounced back very well emotionally from this past Saturday's devastating loss to Vanderbilt.

"I was really proud of them," Nutt said. "They had a good attitude and went to work on a pretty hot day, considering it's been so cool lately. So it was good."

The biggest accomplishment Tuesday, Nutt said, was there were no fumbles.

"That's where it starts," Nutt said. "We've got to do the same thing throughout the week. We've had about a ball on the ground every week. That's what usually happens. We've made a point about all through the week, let's not have the ball on the ground."

'WILD REBEL' GOING NOWHERE: Ole Miss' "Wild Rebel" formation has drawn some criticism from Rebel fans in the aftermath of Saturday's loss to Vanderbilt, but Nutt said the formation _ which features wide receiver Dexter McCluster or running back Brandon Bolden at quarterback _ is going to remain a big part of Ole Miss' playbook.

"I feel good about that formation," Nutt said. "That's what's given us some of our biggest plays of the year. …It's still pretty good. …They know we're going to run it, (so) a lot of time, on the opponent's side, they're having to spend on it. So I think it's still effective, because they're having to spend time on it.

"I don't really think the turnovers have come in the 'Wild Rebel,' except for (McCluster's fumble at the Vanderbilt 1 in the final minutes Saturday). So I don't consider that extravagant. I think our ball-handling's been good right there. What we have to do is work hard no matter what formation you're in. We have to take care of it. But the plan we had wasn't that complicated, really."

Nutt said he was amazed to see the "Wild Rebel" used by the Miami Dolphins on Sunday in a win over the New England Patriots.

"You wouldn't ever expect or dream that would happen on that level," Nutt said.

HARDY'S RETURN STRENGTHENING D-LINE: Greg Hardy had two tackles and one sack in 11 plays against Vanderbilt Saturday, but his return provided quite a lift for the Rebels' defense.

"I'm glad that he's back, and he's only going to get better," Nutt said. "I think the No. 1 thing you see jumping off the film is how quick that he is. You're going to have to know where he is on passing downs, on third downs. Playing against him I know we always wanted four hands on him. He's just a tremendous athlete that can really disrupt."

Hardy is still listed as a third-string defensive end, indicative of the depth the Rebels once again have up front.

"With everybody starting to get back, what makes you feel good is looking on the sideline and there's Hardy standing next to you, and you're ready to get him on the field," Nutt said. "With him, first game back I thought he did some good things. Ted (Laurent) is full speed. Peria Jerry is playing at another level. He's playing at the highest level. He's really been a difference-maker for us. Emmanuel Stephens has more energy now. But that's one of our strengths -- the defensive line. It's very good."

"We're going to keep working (Hardy) in slowly," Ole Miss defensive line coach Tracy Rocker said. "I have to get Greg in shape. …We're going to keep getting him back in shape and getting him more comfortable with the game. I didn't want to all of a sudden throw him out there and he's just playing and running. I wanted him to be comfortable and have some confidence about it. It's the same way I did Peria."

GATORS STINGY WITH FOOTBALL: It's a statistic that should make any Ole Miss fan cringe. It's a statistic that if Ole Miss could match it, Saturday's game in The Swamp would be getting some serious national attention.

After three games, undefeated Florida will go into Saturday's home game against Ole Miss as the nation's only team not to have given up either a fumble or an interception. Dating to last season, the Gators have a streak of five games without a turnover - a school record. It's not by accident.

"That has always been a huge priority for us at Florida and the offense for taking care of the ball," Tebow told The Tampa Tribune. "Teams that turn it over, no matter how good your offense is, you put your defense in bad situations and give the other team lots of momentum. Especially places like (Tennessee's) Neyland Stadium, the crowd gets going and that can turn into a bad situation."

On Saturday, during Florida's 30-6 win in Knoxville, the home crowd turned to boos after the Volunteers fumbled at their 23-yard line to set up a Florida field goal, lost another at the Gators' 3 to stop a 14-play, 71-yard drive, and threw an interception at the 1 to miss another scoring opportunity right before halftime.

At Florida, the message is simple: Turnovers are unforgivable.

"If we see a loose ball, you come out of the game," Meyer said. "Non-negotiable. If I see the top of the football, you are out of the game. Some people say, 'Oh, let them play.' No way. Take care of the football."

Furthermore, Meyer's offensive strategy is designed to, as much as possible, avoid situations that create interceptions. Tebow's string of 145 passes without an interception suggests the Gators are on to something.

"I'll give you an example," Meyer told The Tampa Tribune. "It's third down-and-12, a lot of times our passing game is to check the ball down and punt the football. Do not throw that ball into coverage. When you have a dynamic punter and coverage unit, you will see that we manage the game a lot differently.

"On third down-and-12, those scholarship players on the opposing team know you are trying to get 12. So check it down. That's why we recruit fast people around here. Let the guy try to get the first down. If it does not work, punt the football."

Florida has a turnover ratio this year of plus-nine, second best in the nation - one behind Wake Forest. Also, the Gators are one of only five teams in the country _ joining Oklahoma, Alabama, Penn State and TCU _ not to have trailed at any time this season.

JAMES EMERGING AS ONE OF BEST: Under Meyer, playing on special teams at Florida is presented as a position of privilege. Right now, no one may be more valuable than return man Brandon James.

James already has returned two punts for touchdowns and has provided Florida with outstanding field position on kickoff returns. So is James the best returner in college football?

"I don't know if I am or I'm not but I just want to be in the conversation," James told the Tampa newspaper.

REBEL RUMBLINGS: Backup offensive guard Rishaw Johnson missed Tuesday's practice due to sickness. Redshirt freshman Zack Brent worked with the second unit in his place. …Ohio State transfer cornerback James Scott will take his physical exam on Thursday and join his new team on the practice field for the first time on Sunday when the Rebels begin preparations for their Oct. 4 home date against South Carolina.

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