June 26, 2012
Freeze faces tough task in first year in Oxford
In cooperation with the other SEC sites on Rivals.com, we take a look at five questions facing each team as preseason practice approaches. The series continues today with a report on the Ole Miss Rebels from RebelGrove.com's Neal McCready.
OXFORD, Miss. -- The date was Nov. 28, 2009.
Ole Miss, seven days removed from a 25-23 win over LSU, needed only to defeat Mississippi State to wrap up a 9-3 regular season and clinch a berth opposite Penn State in the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Fla.
Instead of whipping the 4-7 Bulldogs, Ole Miss fell apart in the second half, losing a 41-27 decision.
The Rebels' program still hasn't recovered. Since that fateful afternoon, Ole Miss has won just one Southeastern Conference game (vs. Kentucky, 2010) and endured a brutal 2011 season that proved to be Houston Nutt's downfall.
|SEC: FIVE QUESTIONS|
In cooperation with the other SEC sites on Rivals.com, we take a look at five preseason questions facing each team. Here is the schedule for the series.
|Mon, June 25||South Carolina|
|Tue, June 26||Ole Miss|
|Wed, June 27||Georgia|
|Thur, June 28||Arkansas|
|Fri, June 29||Missouri|
|Mon, July 2||Auburn|
|Tue, July 3||Vanderbilt|
|Thur, July 5||Texas A&M|
|Fri, July 6||Tennessee|
|Mon, July 9 ||Alabama|
|Tue, July 10||Florida|
|Wed, July 11||Mississippi St.|
|Thur, July 12||Kentucky|
|Fri, July 13||LSU|
Enter Hugh Freeze, the former Arkansas State coach known more for his role in "The Blind Side" than his coaching prowess. After a coaching search that saw fans clamor for Alabama assistant Kirby Smart, Mike Leach, Jeff Bower and others, the Rebels tabbed Freeze to rebuild a decimated program in the toughest division of the most competitive conference in all of college football.
There were plenty of fans who were not pleased with the process that resulted in Freeze's hiring, but the Mississippi native and former Ole Miss assistant seems to have won them over.
"I understand the Ole Miss people and the love you have for the university, each other and the love you have for family," Freeze said when he was formally introduced on a rainy December afternoon. "I have that love. This is a destination place for me. This is where I want to live and retire. This is home to me. We understand that to accomplish what we want will take tremendous energy, passion and desire. Our players have to play like that. The first thing we have to get together is that we have to play with passion and effort for sixty minutes. Then we will look up and see where the clock is."
Freeze has infused the program and fan base with energy, rectified an academic situation that was approaching disastrous status when he arrived, repaired some broken relationships on the recruiting trail and renewed some hope that better days are ahead. Still, Freeze has inherited quite a daunting challenge.
Make no mistake about it, Nutt left the Ole Miss program in shambles. Freeze inherited a team with no established quarterback, only one proven running back (Jeff Scott), a thin offensive line, an inexperienced defensive front and a lack of depth at linebacker and defensive line. On top of that, when Freeze arrived in Oxford, the roster was full of potential academic casualties (sources at the time believed as many as 13 players were at risk of being ineligible for the 2012 season), and one of the team's most vocal leaders, linebacker D.T. Shackelford, was bracing for a second ACL repair after missing all of the 2011 campaign.
Seven months later, there's still plenty of work to be done, but there are rays of hope breaking through the clouds on horizon. Only one player, wide receiver/cornerback Nick Brassell, has left the program due to academics. Everyone else appears to be in good standing. Freeze landed signatures from four-star defensive end Channing Ward, four-star running back I'tavius Mathers, four-star defensive back Trae Elston and junior college quarterback Bo Wallace. He hired former Southern Miss strength coach Paul Jackson for the same position in Oxford. Jackson, a pupil of legendary LSU strength coach Tommy Moffitt, has drawn rave reviews so far for his work at Ole Miss.
In the spring, Freeze scrapped Nutt's new-offense-every-week scheme and installed a spread offense akin to the one that helped him lead Arkansas State to a Sun Belt Conference title and a berth in the GoDaddy.com Bowl last season.
"That fast style fits my personality," Freeze said. "That is all I know to be. If you aren't yourself as a coach you are hampering your abilities and chances of competing. My personality is kind of like basketball on grass. I think it is an advantage for teams that may play in a league like this that don't see that kind of offense all the time. I know that it limits exactly what a defense can call. I am not suggesting that defenses can't defend it, but it has been very successful for us. We will go very fast. We have three speeds and we like to go the fastest a lot. We need a lot of receivers to catch balls and quarterbacks and running backs to get a lot of touches. We have to find out if we have guys that enjoy that style. I think we have that."
Most of those players will have to come via recruiting. Freeze and offensive coordinator Dan Werner inherited three quarterbacks - Barry Brunetti, Randall Mackey and Zack Stoudt. By the end of spring, Mackey had been moved to wide receiver and Stoudt had given up the game. Wallace, who began his college career at Arkansas State (with Freeze as the Red Wolves' offensive coordinator) before transferring to a junior college, appeared to hold a slight lead over Brunetti at the conclusion of spring drills.
The quarterback position, however, is just one of many questions facing the Rebels as they prepare for 2012. Here are five others:
1. Which player will Ole Miss miss the most from last season?
His senior season was a disappointment, but Brandon Bolden had a sterling career at Ole Miss. Bolden could get critical yards between the tackles, had the breakaway speed to make big plays in the open field and could be a threat in the passing game. With Bolden (and Enrique Davis) gone, the Rebels will turn to 5-foot-7, 170-pound Jeff Scott at running back. The Rebels have precious little behind Scott on the depth chart. Tobias Singleton moved to the position after struggling at wide receiver as a freshman. Senior Devin Thomas has had his moments, but he's likely not the answer.
Instead, Ole Miss likely finds itself leaning on Mathers and fellow freshman Jaylen Walton. Mathers dominated the prep scene in Tennessee last season, while Walton is the speedy, shifty back that could thrive out of the backfield in Freeze's offense.
2. Which newcomer will make the biggest impact this season?
If it's not Wallace, the Rebels are in trouble. Brunetti opened last season as the starter and eventually won the job back, but Wallace appeared to be a better overall fit for Freeze's scheme in the spring. Wallace has a strong arm, runs well enough to be at least a marginal threat in the running game and got better in his decision-making as the spring progressed.
The Rebels desperately need some consistency under center. The Rebels used five different starters over the past two seasons, preventing the offense from establishing an identity or any real flow. Wallace seemed to build a rapport with sophomore wide receiver Donte Moncrief in the spring, and Moncrief has the tools to be a real threat in the Rebels' passing game.
Given the Rebels' paucity of running backs and Freeze's desire to throw the football, Ole Miss must get production from the quarterback position or run the risk of having a third consecutive disastrous season. Realistically, Wallace is the only guy on campus with the potential to have a major impact at quarterback. The 6-5, 215-pounder led East Mississippi Community College to the national title last season, throwing for 4,475 yards. Mississippi State, Baylor and Indiana all offered Wallace before Freeze pulled the trigger, and Ole Miss overcame a late overture by Texas to secure his services.
Freeze likely didn't sign Wallace to let him sit. Instead, it stands to reason he'll be handed the keys to the Rebels' offense. Any chance Ole Miss of turning the tables on the memories of the past couple of seasons likely ride on Wallace's right arm.
3. What is the biggest question mark heading into preseason practice?
As bad as Ole Miss was last season, the Rebels had two pretty good offensive tackles. After starting three seasons apiece, Bobby Massie is gone to the Arizona Cardinals and Bradley Sowell is now a Tampa Bay Buccaneer.
4. How does the schedule set up for Ole Miss?
In short, it's a nightmare. Ole Miss could start 3-1, thanks to home games against Central Arkansas and UTEP and a road trip to Tulane sandwiching a home date against Texas.
The Rebels can't afford to stumble early, for the rest of the slate is a snake pit-laden obstacle course. After their date in New Orleans, Ole Miss plays at defending national champion Alabama, at home against Texas A&M and Auburn, at Arkansas and at Georgia before finishing with home dates against Vanderbilt and Mississippi State bracketing the road finale at LSU.
5. What are the best- and worse-case scenarios for Ole Miss in 2012?
The best-case scenario for Ole Miss is likely six wins. The formula: Start 3-1, beat Vanderbilt and Mississippi State at home and find a sixth win somewhere, perhaps against either the Aggies or Auburn in Oxford. Doable? Maybe. Realistic? Maybe not, but if you believe in football karma, the Rebels are probably due a dose of good fortune.
The worse-case scenario for the Rebels is one they are all too familiar with. UTEP won't be a gimme for a young team learning a new offense and trying to gain confidence. Lose to the Miners, and disaster is just around the corner. Ole Miss won't be favored against Texas and could be underdogs in all eight SEC contests. The Rebels have lost 13 SEC games in a row. If that streak is intact and sitting at 21 after a fourth straight loss to Mississippi State in November, those who questioned Freeze's hiring will have ammunition - despite the fact Nutt would deserve the lion's share of the blame.
For additional Ole Miss coverage, visit RebelGrove.com.
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