Ole Miss got back to work on Tuesday, focusing on Vanderbilt's diverse offense and the Commodores' physical defense.
All eyes, however, were on Greg Hardy, who was back in full pads for the first time since spring practice. The All-Southeastern Conference defensive end was injured in the first week of fall camp and eventually had surgery to repair a stress fracture in his foot.
Hardy started running on the practice field last week and returned to practice on Sunday. On Tuesday, as Ole Miss (2-1 overall, 0-0 in the SEC) began to prepare for Vanderbilt (3-0, 1-0) in earnest, Hardy's return provided a lift to both the Rebels' pass rush and their intensity.
"He showed some spurts," Ole Miss defensive line coach Tracy Rocker said. "We would go four snaps and he would go every two and rest every two. The thing is we get him conditioned and make sure he understands what we're doing so he doesn't go the wrong way and hurt somebody else. But most of all, he moved around well."
"We'll see how the soreness is tomorrow, but it's good to have him out here in full pads," Nutt said. "We'll see how he responds tomorrow with the starting and stopping. You could tell there was some soreness and it's a little tender, but I'm glad to see him out here."
Hardy was working with the second unit, sharing time with Chris Bowers. Rocker said Hardy is where he needs to be mentally.
"Greg has played this game before," Rocker said. "My biggest concern is one, condition, and two, he's coming off an injury and making sure we do it right and not just say, 'Hey, go out here and play.' We've got to do it slowly and let him get adjusted and let him take his time and be patient."
Nutt said he was pleased with the Rebels' practice Tuesday, adding that he could sense an SEC intensity in his team's work.
"They know," Nutt said. "They know they're playing a good team, too. They're very good, very sound, and they have a lot of confidence right now."
Hardy's return should bolster Ole Miss' pass rush. The Rebels enter the Vanderbilt game tied with Kentucky and Alabama for seventh in the SEC with five sacks. Vanderbilt is tied with Mississippi State and Georgia for eighth in the SEC, having allowed five sacks.
"It hasn't been as good (without Hardy)," Ole Miss defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix said. "I think he's special. I think when he's out there, he turns it up another level and people have to recognize where he is. Right now, I don't know if we really have a threat or not in our pass-rush game."
REBELS LOOKING FOR SEC BREAKTHROUGH: Quarterback Jevan Snead will be playing his first SEC game Saturday, but he's seen eight of them in person. Unfortunately for Ole Miss, the Rebels lost each of those eight. Getting that elephant off the Rebels' collective back this week is extremely important.
"It would be a huge lift," Snead said. "That's what we need to do and that's what we plan on doing. We're going to work to win and play to win."
Wide receiver Mike Wallace said there's more to it than just winning in conference play for the first time since beating Mississippi State in Oxford in November 2006.
"We want to go to Atlanta (for the SEC Championship Game), just like every other team in the SEC" Wallace said. "We feel like we could get to Atlanta too. We feel like we have a good enough team to play with anybody else in this league. We have big dreams of going to Atlanta, so this is the first step. This is an SEC game. Vanderbilt's 3-0 and they're coming into our house, so we've got to protect our house."
RECEIVING CORPS GETTING DEEPER: Ole Miss' wide receiver corps, early in the season at least, consisted of Shay Hodge, Wallace and Dexter McCluster. In the last couple of weeks, however, Ole Miss' depth at that position has become more apparent.
Lionel Breaux started for the first time Saturday against Samford and caught three passes. Andrew Harris caught a pass from Billy Tapp in the fourth quarter and Markeith Summers saw more snaps than in the previous weeks.
"They've been doing good since the summer," Wallace said. "I've been seeing it since the summer but now the coaches are really starting to see that Lionel and Markeith and Andrew can contribute, too. Coach (Ron Dickerson) has always told them to be prepared because anytime they could go on. Now they've been doing real well in practice, so Coach is getting a lot more confidence in them."
GREEN AWARE OF NICKSON: Ole Miss cornerback Marshay Green is set for his second straight start on Saturday, but unlike against Samford, he expects Vanderbilt's Chris Nickson to present problems Saturday. Specifically, Green said he has to make sure that he doesn't pay too much attention to what Nickson's doing in the backfield and lose contact with the receiver he's guarding.
"I'm just going to focus on my assignment and keep my eyes on the wide receiver," Green said. "I'm going to try my best not to look in the backfield, because bad things can happen if I look in the backfield."
MILLER SEES OL PROGRESSING: Ole Miss offensive lineman Maurice Miller said the Rebels' front spent much of last week getting back to fundamentals and focusing on being physical at the point of attack.
"We definitely did that," Miller said. "We got pad level back right and we improved our fundaments and footwork and everything. The running game definitely picked back up because of that. Coach Nutt said he was going to simplify the gameplan for us because he wanted us to get back to playing physical ball. We took that personal and we wanted to make sure we got that done."
VANDY FOCUSED ON REBS' RUN: Ole Miss isn't the only team focused on its running game this week. Vanderbilt is quite concerned about Ole Miss' rushing attack as well, so much so that the Commodores are planning to devote quite a bit of time to the Rebels' ground attack this week. Ole Miss has rushed for 173 yards per game in its first three games.
"We've done fairly well against the run," Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson told The (Nashville) Tennessean Monday. "It's going to be a test this week because Mississippi's going to line up with two backs in the backfield some. We're going to have to prove we can stop it. I'm sure they'll run it as long as they can run it."
Although Vandy's allowed just 98.7 rushing yards per game in its perfect start, none of its foes have been particularly run-oriented. South Carolina ranks last in the SEC in rushing offense and is the only league team averaging less than 100 yards (93.7) per game. Neither Miami (Ohio) nor Rice were run major threats.
"I'm looking forward to getting out there and getting some real run blocks, some power teams," Vanderbilt defensive end Steven Stone told The Tennessean. "I think we can stand up to anybody."
"It's going to be like a whole different defensive game plan," Vanderbilt safety Ryan Hamilton added. "We're obviously not going to have five defensive backs out there the whole game. They're going to run the ball more. It's going to be more 'smash-mouth' football."
'DORES LOOKING FOR RANKING: Vanderbilt is undefeated and unranked, but it looks like the Commodores can move into the top 25 with a win Saturday.
After improving to 3-0 with last Saturday's 38-21 win over visiting Rice, the Commodores are atop the list of "others receiving votes" in the Associated Press Top 25, effectively making them No. 26 in the eyes of the pollsters. If Vanderbilt can move up at least one spot, it would be the first appearance in the Top 25 since 1984, when the Commodores were No. 19 after a 4-0 start.
"It's great that we're up there," Hamilton said. "I hope we do end up in the Top 25 after this week. It'd be good for us to get some recognition throughout the country for what we're doing. I hope we can go 4-0 and get up there. As long as we keep playing and keep winning, I think people will recognize what we're doing."
MORE MOORe?: Vanderbilt junior D.J. Moore accumulated a career-high 206 all-purpose yards on just seven touches against Rice. Moore lined up at cornerback, wide receiver, punt returner and kickoff returner and was productive in all four phases — including a 24-yard rush on a reverse, a 39-yard kickoff return, a 31-yard interception return and a 67-yard punt return to the Rice 1-yard line.
"D.J. was pretty tired in the fourth quarter," Johnson told The Tennessean. "He actually admitted it to somebody — not to me. But for him to admit it, he had to be pretty tired."
REBEL RUMBLINGS: Allen Walker was working with the starting defense on Tuesday, apparently having moved ahead of Lamar Brumfield at one of the outside linebacker spots. Through three games, Brumfield has 11 tackles while Walker has seven. ...Ohio State transfer James Scott was taking a physical Tuesday. He is expected to join the Rebels some time this week. Scott will not be eligible to play until next season. He'll have three years of eligibility remaining. ...Terrell Jackson was working as the Rebels' backup strong safety Tuesday, replacing Fon Ingram, who is suspended from the Vanderbilt game after being arrested for DUI last weekend. ...Ole Miss' injury list is virtually non-existent. With Hardy's return, only LaMark Armour and Don Hargroder _ both out with season-ending knee injuries _ are missing practice for physical reasons.