OXFORD – A number of building blocks were put in place en route to a Cotton Bowl victory last season, perhaps none more important than one secured on the Ole Miss practice field one steamy August evening after practice.
And it wasn’t done by a coach.
Setting out on what would become an All-American season individually, Peria Jerry told his teammates, bluntly and with great emotion, that he’d never been a loser, was tired of losing and that those who were distracted better get their acts together and get on board.
In 2009 the Rebels will certainly miss the seven sacks and 18 tackles for loss from their best defensive lineman.
But they’ll miss much more from Peria Jerry. He leaves behind a leadership void on defense that Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt is trying to fill in spring practice.
There are returning playmakers on the defensive line, and, gauging by the early workouts from Jerrell Powe, new playmakers are emerging.
But the ability to pull performance from peers is not a common trait.
“When things aren’t going right to have a guy say, ‘Follow me.’ That’s what Peria had. The intensity was very high, and he brought that to our locker room. Now we need someone one defense to step up and keep that together.”
The bodies are plentiful, but the candidates have a different make-up.
There are seniors at each end, Greg Hardy and Marcus Tillman.
Hardy, who is missing spring drills as he recovers from foot surgery, has a history that would paint him as the polar opposite of a team leader, though Nutt says he’s changed his ways and is “being a great teammate” through his recovery process.
A former Franklin County standout, Tillman chose Ole Miss after a heated recruiting battle against LSU. He is entering his fourth season as a starter, though at times he’s been overshadowed by the flamboyant – and very productive – Hardy.
“He’s quiet and does it by example. I love his attitude,” Nutt said.
Tillman approached defensive coaches last year and expressed concern that he wasn’t making enough big plays. They encouraged him to keep doing what he was doing, which is to put the nose to the grindstone and lead by example.
Tillman had 26 tackles last year, third among defensive linemen, with a sack and a fumble recovery.
“I try to set an example, do the right things and be consistent every day,” Tillman said. “I won’t be the vocal leader that Peria was. We have a lot of guys like that on our defense already.”
Nevertheless, Tillman believes his style of leadership is effective.
“If you see somebody going all out, you can’t help but go all out yourself. It brings something out in you,” he said.
Junior Kentrell Lockett, who started at right end ahead of Hardy and is listed there now, is a journalism major who has no trouble talking, but there’s much more to his game than talk. He had 36 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and a pair of sacks as a sophomore. He also blocked an extra point at Florida, ultimately the margin of victory.
Lockett himself is a leadership candidate, but he doesn’t believe that role is a one-person job.
“Both styles are good, and both can motivate guys,” Lockett says. “But to be a leader the magnitude of Peria will take a group effort, just to make up for the motivation he gave. It will take both ends and both tackles. Everyone has to play a part.”
Parrish Alford/Daily Journal