When healthy, Greg Hardy was the most explosive and disruptive force on the Rebel defense, equaled only by TB Dexter McCluster on the whole team in those regards.
When it was learned that Hardy would miss the final three regular season games due to wrist surgery, a shock wave went through the Rebel fan base.
On the surface, it was the correct reaction. Losing a player that has shown in the past he can be dominant down the stretch run with the remaining schedule the Rebs were facing could in no way be construed as a positive.
But lo and behold in the Rebels' wins over Tennessee and LSU - both without Hardy - the defensive ends, as a group, have played better than they have played all season.
Marcus Tillman, Kentrell Lockett and Emmanuel "E-Man" Stephens have not only taken up the slack, they've added more length to the rope.
"It's been pretty amazing," said Ole Miss Coach Houston Nutt. "They took it upon themselves to not let Greg's absence affect their unit and, if anything, they've been even more productive in these last couple of games."
Tillman and Lockett have taken it all in stride, stating what they have done is simply a matter of doing what they were supposed to.
"We are a tight group in that defensive line room and the burden was on us to hold up our end of the bargain, with or without Greg," said Tillman. "We knew we were going to have to go extra snaps and take up the slack somehow. We all just dug deeper and our hard work all season long has paid off.
"We just want to do whatever it takes to win. Do the job no matter what. That is what has driven us."
"We've just been balling. There was a void that had to be filled and we took it upon ourselves to fill it," said Lockett. "E-Man has been special. Without Greg in the lineup, offenses have been kind of chipping on me with backs and he's kind of sneaked in there and gotten some great sacks.
"Marcus is just Marcus. He's always consistent and always going to do his job. We never worry about anything on his side. We know he's going to hold it down. And I've just tried to step up my game and finish the season strong."
Lockett's big rivalry game - since he is from Louisiana - was LSU, but he understands fully the rivalry between Ole Miss and Mississippi State.
"I was watching film with (Jerrell) Powe and he was talking about knowing this guy and having played against that guy in high school," he explained. "I know how they feel. This is the state championship for Mississippi.
"I did a lot of talking last week and now the Mississippi guys on the team are talking this game up this week. It's probably a bigger rivalry to them than LSU is to me because both teams are in Mississippi. They want to bring that Egg Bowl trophy back home badly."
Tillman said everyone who has played in an Egg Bowl game understands the intensity level required.
"I don't think there will be any issues in motivating our team. We get it. Anyone who played down there two years ago definitely understands," Marcus noted.
Kentrell is aware this year's Egg Bowl will be much tougher than last year's.
"They tried to throw the ball a lot last year after they got behind and it gave us opportunities to get a lot of sacks," he explained. "This year, they are running the ball more with Anthony Dixon, so we won't get as many shots at their quarterback. We'll have to concentrate more on the run game than we did last year."
Lockett knows Dixon is a formidable back.
"I think Anthony is better than he was last year because he has trimmed down some, but is still very strong and a power back only now he has some shiftiness and some moves," Lockett said. "He doesn't just try to run over you now. And when he's producing their whole team starts hitting on all cylinders and it raises up the play of everyone."
Kentrell knows the importance of the Egg Bowl beyond state pride as well. As in, a warm weather bowl.
"Playing in cold weather stings and is uncomfortable. I like warmer weather for football myself," he closed. "We need to win Saturday for a lot of reasons, but one of the big ones is to get a great bowl game. We've got a lot on the line against Mississippi State. We are all aware of that."
Hardy will not dress out against the Bulldogs.
He has stated, however, that he hopes to be back for whatever bowl the Rebels play in.
Meanwhile, the Three Amigos - Tillman, Lockett and Stephens - will pull the rope and do everything they can to maintain the excellence they have exhibited in his absence.
Sans Hardy, remaining DEs step up
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