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August 5, 2012

Notes: Slimmed-down Pena eager for redemption



OXFORD, Miss. -- Gilbert Pena is proud of his body these days.

Ole Miss' defensive tackle knows the transformation is a topic of discussion for fans and media alike, but he almost hates to admit where he was physically a year ago.

"Don't judge me now, guys," Pena said with a smile following Sunday's practice. "Last year, I came in a 347 and right now, I'm at about 319. …My speed, you can definitely see it on the field. I'm faster and more explosive."

The senior from Yonkers, N.Y., couldn't have picked a better time to improve both is body and his game. Pena aspires to play professionally, and obviously, this is his final opportunity to impress NFL scouts. Further, Ole Miss desperately needs his presence on a young, thin defensive front.

"I'm trying to be a leader as well," Pena said. "I'm trying to help the guys out, like young Woodrow Hamilton. He's getting the playbook down. He'll definitely have an impact on the team. For the most part, I feel like getting my weight down will help me play more snaps, get more reps and be more fundamental on the ball."

Pena gave new strength and conditioning coach Paul Jackson much of the credit for his weight loss and improved stamina. An improved diet helped as well.

Pena played in 10 games last season, recording just 11 tackles. He was hampered for most of the campaign by a broken right hand, one that required him to wear a bulky, cumbersome club-like wrap.

"The hand is good," Pena said. "I want to say it's 100 percent right now. That club is a hassle. It's like actually three or four pounds. I don't know how P-Willie (former Ole Miss linebacker Patrick Willis), but on the defensive line in the trenches, it's definitely a lot harder to engage with the offensive linemen and it's heavy. It slows you down."

Pena said not being able to play effectively last season "hurt. But it's a learning lesson. …It was frustrating, but when you know you've got another year, you just work hard, get your weight down and focus on this year to come. I'm focused on the task at hand."

OFFENSE MAKES STRIDES: There were moments of frustration Sunday for Hugh Freeze, Dan Werner and Ole Miss' offensive staff, but there were some strides made, too.

"We've just got to block some folks," Freeze said, following the Rebels' 2 -hour practice Sunday morning. "They're doing so much stuff on defense and they brought a lot of energy today on the defensive side. There are a lot of moving parts, and we're struggling to pick it up right now."

The bright spots included the continued impressive play of freshman running backs I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton and the marked improvement of a handful of wide receivers, including sophomore Vincent Sanders.

"I thought he caught the ball very well (Sunday)," Freeze said. "We're going to need him. We're thin in a lot of places. A year ago, people would've said the receiving corps was one of our strengths. While that may be true, I still don't like our depth there. I wish we had more people and more bodies. Vince has had a good camp thus far."

INJURIES SPOIL THE DAY: Wide receiver Collins Moore suffered a dislocated shoulder Sunday and left the practice field in a wrap, headed for an MRI. Defensive back Charles Sawyer pulled a leg muscle and will likely miss several days of camp. Those injuries put a damper on an otherwise productive day.

"It's just sickening when you get guys that have worked so hard and they go out there and get banged up," Freeze said.

The extent of both injuries was not immediately known. Freeze said he knew both "would miss some time." Freeze said Sawyer had "an indention" at the site of his muscle pull.

"That can be something that could last all year if we don't get it well, so we'll try to make sure we get it well," Freeze said. "You just want to make sure it's not something he'll miss significant time from, but he'll study and he's going to do what's supposed to do. We know what he can do."

With Sawyer out, freshmen Quintavius Burdette and Trae Elston will get significant reps.

"They've been getting some," Freeze said, "but those two guys, we've been very impressed with them."

Wide receiver Donte Moncrief left practice early after taking a knee to his thigh. The injury wasn't serious. Freeze said the sophomore is "day-to-day."

QUARTERBACK ANALYSIS: Freeze continued to harp on both of his quarterbacks' decision-making on Sunday.

"We'll go in lapses," Freeze said. "We'll have four good plays in a row where they do good things that don't create negative plays and then we'll have two or three that are disastrous that you just can't have and be successful. We've still got a ways to go there with both of them."


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