Prime Time Ready

It's been a long time since the first week of January when Ole Miss last played a football game. For junior linebacker Keith Lewis, make that too long.

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"Vandy, I can't wait to play them. They're a great opponent," he said as the Rebels prepared to leave for Nashville, Tenn., and a nationally televised game Thursday at 8:15 p.m. on ESPN. "I have a cousin that actually plays for them, (quarterback) Joshua Grady, No. 7. It will be good to finally see him out there on the field. I'm just really excited to play."

That's the sentiment throughout the team and staff. When head coach Hugh Freeze was asked by a TV reporter Monday if he would like to have more time for preparation, the second-year Ole Miss head coach said, "I don't want any more time."

The Rebels are indeed ready for a game, ready to kick off the season before the eyes of the nation and what should be a large throng of Rebel faithful in Nashville. The entire allotment of 7,000 tickets sent to Ole Miss from Vanderbilt has been sold. Others bought through other sources.

The Rebel players know they'll have the support in the stands for the opener. Lewis and the older players will try to help keep the younger players from being too wide-eyed in their first college environment and game.

"My class, the 2011 class, we've finally matured to where we can help," he said. "Help the younger guys and tell them ‘just relax. We've been here.' Yes it may be 60,000-plus people (not at Vandy but in other venues). And that you can't focus on that because you have to win every play."

Lewis recalls his first time out onto a field for a college game. It was the season opener in 2011 in Oxford.

"It was unbelievable," he said. "I remember my first game that freshman year, walking out on the field for BYU. We were walking out of the tunnel, and I stopped and had to take a look around. But now it's one of those things where I know what to expect. I have to help tell the younger guys they'll get used to it, too."

Lewis, at 6-foot-1, 220-pounds, worked hard in the offseason to be ready for the 2013 season. He's pleased with where he is.

"I feel I've developed mentally more than anything," he said. "With the help of Coach (Paul) Jackson and those guys getting us in shape. Learning the playbook. Having a year to learn it and coming along, the more I know it the faster I move. Coach Jackson has that fire. Somehow when we don't have it or need to get kicked in the butt, he'll have us moving in the right direction."

The linebacker corps is one of depth and talent. The names Lewis mentions are easily recognizable to Rebel fans.

Keith Lewis
File Photo

"I feel like we have a one, two, three punch," he said. "We have Mike Marry and Denzel (Nkemdiche). We have me and Bird (Serderius Bryant). The four us are liable to start any game this season, any combo, also with Temario Strong and D.T. (Shackelford) as well. I feel our linebacker corps is strong."

But he said with that maturity and experience come balance and knowledge of the situation at hand.

"We're humble but hungry," Lewis said.

Lewis believes the Rebel defense should be better this year. He likes the personnel, and he knows the system better, having been in it for a second year now. The same goes for all the veterans and returnees.

"I just feel like we've got to prove it though," Lewis admitted. "With the coaching change last year and learning the defense, it was different. I would say there has been talent (before), but the mental part of it is different now. That's what makes you stronger."

And on Thursday it kicks off for real again. Lewis knows the Rebels are ready, and he understands what Freeze meant when he responded the way he did to the TV reporter's comment about preparation.

"I feel like the time is forcing us to be ready regardless," Lewis said. "If you're not ready, you're going to get left behind. We have a date every year with that first game. Our mindset is ‘be ready' for that first game. You don't want to be ready the week of the game. You want to be ready for the game. He's right when he says that."

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