September 18, 2008

For Rebels, it's all about confidence

Jason Cook can't really explain the different feeling around the Ole Miss program these days.

The Rebels' senior fullback isn't usually at a loss for words but he came up empty on Wednesday when he tried to express Ole Miss' confidence as the Rebels get ready for Saturday's Southeastern Conference opener against Vanderbilt at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

"We've got that confidence in coaches and confidence in each other for the first time since I've been here," Cook said. "That's definitely important going into this game this weekend."

"Everybody is confident that we can beat anybody," defensive tackle Peria Jerry added. "Everybody has their head on their shoulders and we're looking forward to bigger and better things. With the coaching staff we've got, we just have to go out and do what the coaches ask us to do."

There would be plenty of reasons for the Rebels (2-1 overall, 0-0 in the SEC) to feel a little shaky heading into the game against the Commodores (3-0, 1-0). Ole Miss hasn't won an SEC game since beating Mississippi State in November 2006 and the Rebels have won a total of three league games in the past three seasons.

"It's tough being on 22 different pages when you go into a game," Cook said. "More importantly than that, it's great to be on one page as a team this year going into Vanderbilt. It's a feeling I wish I could describe, but unfortunately, I can't, but it's a good feeling."

Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt has seen signs of the confidence he's been trying to instill into his new team, but he wants to see the Rebels carry it to the game field now.

"It's tough because sometimes I assume that they know how to feel and they know what to do and that's not the case," Nutt said. "That's what's been difficult. That's what hard. That's why I hated to see those faces in that locker room (following Ole Miss' 30-28 loss at No. 20 Wake Forest on Sept. 6). That kind of woke me up a little bit. Jamarca Sanford, man, you'd go to war with those guys. They're just great young men who care. That's who you're pulling for. Hopefully we'll get more and more people following them."

What Cook can express is how it will feel if the Rebels defeat Vanderbilt Saturday.

"It will be a place where no one on this team has been since high school," Cook said. "It's going to be a lot of confidence. Coach Nutt is really good about keeping us grounded, but if we win this game this weekend rolling into Florida, we're going to be fairly unstoppable going down to Gator Town."

REBELS RESPOND WEDNESDAY: Nutt said Tuesday he wanted to see a faster team on Wednesday, and after Wednesday's two-plus-hour practice, Nutt said his wish was granted.

"It was a very, very good Wednesday," Nutt said. "I was really proud of the day. Every coach challenged them today. They all know they're going into the SEC and how tough it is. You know how tough Vanderbilt comes in to play you. We challenged them and they answered it. Each period they were focused. They concentrated on the speed of the game and being physical and knowing their assignments. It was a good practice."

AUSTIN: SNEAD'S PROBLEMS MECHANICAL: It's relative, mind you, but after two standout performances, Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead struggled against Samford, missing open targets and throwing a pair of interceptions.

The game film, Ole Miss offensive coordinator Kent Austin said, showed that Snead's problems were caused by mechanical breakdowns and not poor decision-making.

"He's unbelievable," Austin said. "He's a coach's dream. He takes coaching well. He cares. He wants to be good. He's unselfish. He's got all the qualities you want in that position and yet, he's confident. He's got the proper mix of those qualities, I think."

As for Vanderbilt's defense, Austin said he's been impressed by what he's seen. The Commodores, Austin said, are not the homecoming opponent when he was Ole Miss' quarterback back in the 1980s.

"Not even close," Austin said. "They beat us last year. We definitely don't feel that at all. We feel just the opposite. They're a very good football team. They're 3-0 and they're 3-0 for a reason. That's not a fluke."

REBS FEEL MORE PREPARED FOR SEC PLAY: Ole Miss didn't win an SEC game last season and haven't won one since beating Mississippi State in November 2006 in Oxford. Still, there is confidence this time around, in large part because the Rebels feel more prepared under Nutt than they have in previous seasons.

"You see a lot more people healthy," Ole Miss outside linebacker Ashlee Palmer said. "This time last year, we had a lot of injuries. I think we're well-prepared for Vandy and we still have the rest of the week to get ready."

ROCKER HAPPY WITH DEPTH: It wasn't long ago when it seemed like Ole Miss assistant coach Tracy Rocker was running a hospital ward and not a college football defensive line. No longer. The Rebels' defensive front is finally fully intact with the return of Greg Hardy, Peria Jerry and Ted Laurent.

"It feels good, but my biggest thing is getting everybody to play together," Rocker said. "I'm glad to have them all back but it's most important that we get them all together to play on the same page. That will be the plus."

Rocker had special praise for backup defensive end Chris Bowers, who will likely lose some defensive snaps to Hardy.

"Oh, man, I'm so proud of Chris Bowers," Rocker said. "Hey, I'm glad to have him. The guy's gotten better and he definitely has helped us defensively and he's big on special teams. The guy's kind of an unsung hero around here, but the thing is, he works hard. Right now, Greg goes in and spots behind Chris right now. We'll just keep working and see how Greg comes along."

ROCKER IMPRESSED WITH VANDY'S FRONT: Vanderbilt quarterback Chris Nickson and tailback Jared Hawkins get most of the publicity, but Rocker said the Commodores' vaunted running game starts up front with the offensive line and tight ends.

"They are well-coached and they do a good job of getting a hat on everybody," Rocker said. "I think they're a physical team and I have a lot of respect for them up front from the years we've played them. After that the quarterback and No. 31, Hawkins, those two guys together are pretty dang good. There are two threats in their backfield. But their offensive line and tight ends do a good job of getting a hat on a hat and getting everyone blocked up, and that's what I respect about them."

Rocker admitted that he's as curious as media and fans to see if his unit is physical enough to handle Vanderbilt's attack.

"I'm waiting until Saturday to see," Rocker said. "We've got our (work) cut out for us. The thing is we get good work against our offense, too, because we're a physical offense and that helps us with that. The most important thing for us is to transfer what we do at practice into the stadium. If we can do that, I'll be happy."

VANDY MAY HAVE WR BACK FOR REBELS: Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson had hoped to get some injured Commodores back for Saturday's matchup with Ole Miss, but they won't be the impact players some had anticipated.

Wide receiver Andrew Diomande, who transferred last summer from Clemson and has been slowed with a toe injury, might make his debut Saturday.

"He should be ready," Johnson told The (Nashville) Tennessean. "He'll give us a body. But he hasn't played, and he hasn't practiced very much, so it's going to be hard for him to be in tip-top shape."

Diomande caught four passes for 70 yards in two seasons at Clemson. The fifth-year senior could give a boost to a receiving corps that earlier lost George Smith (foot) during the preseason and John Cole (knee). Meanwhile, neither Smith nor tailback Jeff Jennings are likely to play Saturday.

"I don't think Jeff's going to make it," Johnson said of the fifth-year senior, who injured his right shoulder against Miami (Ohio). "We're being really cautious. That sort of means 'no,' but you never say never."

Smith continues to improve, but the staff seems inclined to hold him out until the Oct. 4 game.

"George did all right," Johnson told The Tennessean. "We'll have to see how sore he is. But he's getting better."

REBEL RUMBLINGS: Defensive end Greg Hardy practiced again Wednesday, his injured foot heavily taped but showing no signs of distress.

"It's just good to see him back working with the team," Jerry said. "We're looking forward for Greg to be back with us."

Nutt said Hardy responded well on Wednesday and he's more confident now than at any point this week that the All-SEC defensive end will be able to play Saturday against Vanderbilt.

Nutt said the decision to move Allen Walker ahead of Lamar Brumfield at outside linebacker was based on Walker making more plays, possessing more quickness and Walker's showing signs of catching on to the Rebels' defensive schemes.

"He's a lot better now," Nutt said. "He's making less mental errors."

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