Getting Defensive

The seasonal transformation of the Ole Miss defense hasn't happened over night. Read about it inside.

Ask any player sporting the Red and Blue and the answer always resembles a combination of various adjectives. Maybe "playing fast" is the term used. Even "getting physical" has been thrown around.

But no matter the resounding battle cry shouted, these varying tones have steadily rang louder as the 2008 regular season comes ever-so-close to completion.

"We've gotten a whole lot better from the beginning of the season until now," said junior Cornerback Cassius Vaughn. "We've really focused in and tried to get better in all phases, including the secondary. We got tired of not being a complete defense. Now we're stepping up and getting a lot of turnovers and playing together."

The secondary, once thought as a possible question mark, has began to take form. Free safety Kendrick Lewis has seen his production gradually increase, with an outpour of turnovers following suit.

Lewis registered his team-leading fourth interception of the year at LSU Saturday, and also led the team with eight total tackles with a TFL.

The junior leads the team and ranks 12th in the Southeastern Conference in total tackles with 78 and is tied for fifth in the league in interceptions and eighth in passes defended (9).

"I've gotten better in all aspects of the game," Lewis said. "I came out this season wanting to work hard and get better. I put in my mind that I wanted to be the best, so I came out everyday and prepared and worked hard for it."

With two interceptions against the Tigers, Ole Miss has posted multiple picks in the last three games and four times this year.

"We're just playing aggressive and playing hard," he continued. "We have a lot of intensity. The defense is going full-speed, trying to get better every game."

The turnovers have often been predicated by intense pressure from the stingy front four of the Rebels. The monsters of the Hemingway rank second in the SEC in rushing defense, limiting opponents to a meager 97.4 yard average. Ole Miss also ranks ninth nationally in the same category.

The Rebel D has held the opposition under 82 rushing yards six times this season, including the last three contests. Ole Miss held the Tigers to just 37 yards rushing - the lowest by a Rebel foe since ULM ran for 29 yards in 2003.

Anchoring the D-line's efforts has been Peria Jerry, who Coach Houston Nutt says has been playing at an All-American level.

"I'll tell you guys, Peria Jerry - he's an All-American. He's a First-Team All-American if you have ever seen one," said Nutt. "He's a special player who plays every single play. He's disruptive. He's going to stop the run, pressure the quarterback and do it all by playing with great pad level and fundamentals. Our entire defense is coming together better."

While the offense has seen its fair-share of recognition, it's the emergence of the defense over the last few weeks that has allowed the Rebels to position themselves for postseason action for the first time since 2003.

With the Bulldogs of Mississippi State the last hurdle standing in the way of an 8-4 record and possible New Year's bowl, the Rebels understand what is at stake Friday.

"There's always an extra fire with State," Vaughn said. "It's State. They're our instate rival. You're either Blue and Red or Maroon and White. We just have to come out and do what we have to do. We have to go out and play good ball and see what happens."

And the Rebel defense will be in the center of that rivalry maelstrom.

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