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October 9, 2008

Rebels relax before huge test in Tuscaloosa

On the surface, it looked like a scary sight for Ole Miss.

Cornerback Cassius Vaughn was sitting out of practice, his foot and ankle in a stabilizing boot one day after rolling the joint in individual drills. Freshman Derrick Herman was running with the first-team defense at left corner.

Fear not, however. Thanks to a bye week, Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt was able to take precaution and give Vaughn an extra day off, all the while letting Herman get a taste of starting.

"I don't think it's that bad," Nutt said. "He turned it yesterday in one-on-ones. I think he'll be all right."

Herman, a Cleveland, Miss., native who has been very impressive this season, primarily on special teams, is expected to challenge for serious playing time in the spring and again next fall.

"He's going to be a good football player," Nutt said. "I'm glad we signed him. He's going to be fine. He's getting used to the speed of the game now and he's competing better. He's gotten stronger. He's going to be all right."

The Rebels will take off Friday and Saturday before reconvening Sunday to get ready for the Crimson Tide, who are 6-0 overall, 3-0 in SEC play and also off this weekend.

"It'll be a much more extended practice Sunday," Nutt said. "That will give us a good head start. This has been a good week. We got to give some young players some attention and hopefully we got better fundamentally. I think we did. Now we'll get ready for a big, big week."

The Rebels are 3-3 overall and 1-2 in the Southeastern Conference after the first half of the season. It would be tempting for the Rebels to sit around and think about what-if scenarios, considering close losses to Wake Forest, Vanderbilt and South Carolina. Nutt has emphasized this week, however, that he wants the Rebels to view next Saturday's nationally-televised date with No. 2 Alabama (2:30 p.m. CDT, Bryant-Denny Stadium, Tuscaloosa, Ala., CBS) as the start of a new season.

"That one's gone," Nutt said. "There's nothing you can do about it. There are a lot of good games left."

YOUNG TIGHT ENDS IMPRESS: David Traxler and junior college transfer Gerald Harris have been solid, but Ole Miss' future at tight end is sparkling. That's been obvious this week, as freshmen E.J. Epperson and Ferbia Allen have performed extremely well in the spotlight.

"Oh, my goodness," Nutt said, "they're special. E.J. Epperson and Ferbia Allen are special. We'll be set for tight end for awhile."

Allen has added about 15 pounds to his 6-foot-5 frame and now weighs about 240 pounds. Epperson, who caught a touchdown pass from Nathan Stanley in a scrimmage Wednesday, has bulked up to about 245 pounds on his 6-3 frame. Both players have accepted the role of redshirt, as difficult as that has been.

"Everybody knows it's kind of hard," Epperson said. "I understand the pain from all the other redshirts. When you're a superstar in high school, it's hard changing. It's hard when you look out there on Saturdays and people are playing, but I have kind of gotten used to it. It's all about getting better and next year, I'll be a more mature player.

"I'm just relaxing, being patient, getting better and learning my assignments. I know I'm not ready to play in front of 90,000. I'm getting better each week. I play hard on scout team and when my play is called, I'm going to do what I have to do. Next year, me and Ferbia both are going to get a lot of playing time. David is graduating this year and Gerald will be a senior, so me and Ferb will be sophomores taking over the tight end position."

The two freshmen tight ends have also struck up a deep friendship. They're inseparable on the practice field, and Epperson said they've grown close off of it as well.

"He's my best friend," Epperson said. "We hang out all the time. We're just best buds helping each other. Sometimes it's not about competing for the spot. It's about trying to make each other better. Both of us are going to play."

HARRIS EMERGING AS FUTURE TOP TARGET: Freshman wide receiver Melvin Harris suffered a broken bone in his foot shortly after arriving at Ole Miss this summer. Had he not, he might be on the field already. Since the foot has healed, the 6-6 Harris has emerged as one of the bright spots in Ole Miss' offensive future.

"He's smooth," Nutt said. "The guy's really got great agility for a guy that big. The redshirt was the best thing for him and he'll be a valuable, valuable asset to our team next year."

REBS READY FOR DIFFERENT LOOK: Alabama, thanks to mammoth nose tackle Terrance Cody, is running the 3-4 defensive scheme that coach Nick Saban is most comfortable with, one that has allowed the Crimson Tide's linebackers and safeties to roam a little more freely.

Ole Miss spent some time this week working against the 3-4, a scheme the Rebels haven't faced so far this season and rarely see in practice.

"We have to prepare differently for the 3-4," Ole Miss offensive coordinator Kent Austin said. "We understand that, but our defense operates out of that in certain situations, so we have seen it some in the spring and summer. It's not like we've had no experience facing it. We've had some experience. We'll use this time we've got this week and next week working on it."


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