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September 9, 2008

Rebel defensive line still healing

The improvement in Ole Miss' run stopping ability along the defensive line was evident in the Rebels' 30-28 loss to No. 20 Wake Forest, but a defensive line that was to be a strong suit headed into the 2008 season remains unsettled for Saturday's game against Samford at 6 p.m. in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.

After giving up 188 yards on the ground in the Memphis opener, Ole Miss limited Wake Forest - a team that ran for 240 yards two years ago in Oxford - to just 107 yards on Saturday.

Still, it's not the front line that many fans expected - it was to be Marcus Tillman, Peria Jerry, Ted Laurent and Greg Hardy - instead, it's names like Emmanuel Stephens and Chris Bowers who headlined the Wake Forest statistics.

Stephens had four tackles on Saturday while Kentrell Lockett added another four stops that included a sack and a tackle for a loss. Bowers and Lawon Scott added three stops each with Scott also credited for a tackle for a loss and a sack.

The different names can be associated with injuries. It started with Laurent going down with a knee injury and missing most of the fall camp. Jerry went down twice with the latest requiring knee surgery which caused him to miss the Memphis game. Then the big blow was the loss of Hardy to a stress fracture of his foot.

The Rebels are, however, beginning to see some depth returning to their line. They got Laurent back for the Memphis game, but in a limited role as he plays himself back into shape after being restricted during his rehab. Then on Saturday, the Rebels saw the return of Jerry, but in a very limited role.

"They tried me on a few third downs," Jerry said after the game. "Hopefully, I'll be back fulltime. I'm feeling good. I just got in a few reps to see how it feels."

"He (Jerry) has more confidence now," head coach Houston Nutt said on Monday. "After playing the amount of plays he played Saturday, he is going to be even better the next time he plays. He's coming. I'm just glad that he is out there."

Jerry remained the most vocal leader on defense, even when he was sidelined, and was one of the first players out of the tunnel for opening day - dressed in street clothes.

"I don't know what his production was, but he's one of our leaders and you could feel his leadership out there and on the sidelines," defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix said after the game.

While Jerry saw action against Wake Forest, he wasn't credited with a tackle. Laurent managed just one stop and Jerrell Powe, who saw some action at nose guard, also wasn't credited with a stop. He was benched after jumping off sides at one point.

In the meantime, it's the "lightweights" - guys like Scott, a lightly recruited two-star prospect in the 2007 signing class, Bowers, a fifth year senior largely dismissed because of playing behind more talented players, and Justin Smith, a true freshmen who wasn't expected to impact immediately, who are waging battles in the trenches while the wounded heal or other players adapt to the game.

That would include Powe, who has been affected by a three-year layoff from college football and hasn't been the impact player as defensive line coach Tracy Rocker cautioned headed into the season.

A positive for Ole Miss is that the line is holding together and getting experience while overcoming injuries before it heads into SEC play on Sept. 20 against Vanderbilt.

However, the key to it all could be Hardy, who gives the Rebels a disruptive force that so far, no other defensive lineman can come close to matching.

"He's probably a couple of weeks out, I know he's getting better. He's in the pool running," Nutt said.

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