Spring Football Outlook
March 22, 2012
Hugh Freeze has been a winner at every level he has coached. Include his inspirational personality and lifelong love for Ole Miss, and it is easy to see why the Mississippi native was the first choice of the search committee to find the Rebels’ new head coach.
After directing Arkansas State to its best season in school history in 2011, Freeze is tasked with restoring his homestate’s flagship program to prominence. Since posting consecutive Cotton Bowl victories, Ole Miss has totaled just six wins the past two seasons, forcing the change in leadership.
“This is my dream job,” said Freeze, the 2011 Sun Belt Conference Coach of the Year. “Ole Miss has won national titles, SEC titles and ranks top 25 all-time in bowl appearances and bowl wins. There is a championship tradition here, and we are going to return it to that level and do it with energy, passion and a positive attitude.”
The Freeze era begins March 23 with the beginning of spring drills, which will conclude April 21 with the annual BancorpSouth Grove Bowl at 1 p.m.
He inherits a team that returns 61 lettermen, including 30 on offense, 26 on defense and five specialists. That group receives immediate help this spring with the addition of five, talented mid-year transfers.
The first step for Freeze was to address conditioning. Under strength coach Paul Jackson, offseason reports have been positive, and Freeze has seen leadership come from seniors E.J. Epperson and H.R. Greer on offense and senior Jason Jones and junior Charles Sawyer on defense.
“Paul Jackson is a rising star in the strength and conditioning world, and he has made an instant impact in the mental and physical toughness of our players,” Freeze said. “We won winter workouts, and now it’s time to take that into spring drills.”
Freeze’s teams have all featured a high-powered offense, and the spring will be key as that aggressive attack is installed.
"We will go very fast,” he said. “We need a lot of receivers to catch balls and quarterbacks and running backs to get a lot of touches. Now it’s time to determine who fits best in what role."
Ole Miss returns eight starters from an offensive unit that struggled in 2011. Highlighting the group is a pair of sophomore receivers in Donte Moncrief, a freshman All-America honoree, and Nickolas Brassell, who earned starts on both sides of the ball. The duo finished first and second, respectively, on the team in receptions, receiving yards and TD catches.
Other returnees factoring into the receiving corps include sophomores Vince Sanders and Tobias Singleton and juniors Ja-Mes Logan and Terrell Grant. Candidates for the H slot are sophomore Collins Moore and juniors Korvic Neat and Philander Moore.
The top four pass-catchers from a year ago are back, including leading rusher Jeff Scott. The junior running back ran for 529 yards and six TDs and finished eighth in the SEC in all-purpose yards. Senior tailback Devin Thomas provides depth in the backfield this spring, as Ole Miss prepares for life after Brandon Bolden, who finished his career second in school history in rushing and total touchdowns and third in all-purpose yards.
Juniors Evan Swindall (center) and Patrick Junen (left guard) and senior Matt Hall (right guard) are returning starters on the line, although senior A.J. Hawkins, junior Jared Duke and sophomore Aaron Morris have each started five or more games in their career. Hawkins, who has 16 starts at center, and Morris, who earned the starting nod at left guard five times as a true freshman, are strong candidates at guard, while Junen could play either guard or tackle.
Highly recruited JUCO transfer Pierce Burton expects to compete for a starting tackle spot right away. Junior Emmanuel McCray, sophomore Chase Hughes and redshirt freshmen Justin Bell and Mitch Hall will also be battling for snaps on the line.
The biggest question mark of the spring is at quarterback, where Ole Miss boasts four signal-callers vying for the top spot, three of which started two or more games last year. Seniors Randall Mackey and Zack Stoudt each led the Rebels to a victory in 2011, while Barry Brunetti started the first and last games of the season.
While the returnees adjust to a new offense, heralded sophomore transfer Bo Wallace is reunited with Freeze, who was Wallace’s position coach during a redshirt season at Arkansas State. Last year, Wallace led East Mississippi Community College to a national championship while shattering NJCAA single-season passing records.
Defensively, Ole Miss ranked 22nd in the nation in stopping the pass a year ago, and led by Sawyer, the secondary will be relied upon in a Freeze defense that will utilize multiple packages. A sophomore All-America honoree, Sawyer finished fourth in the SEC in passes defended and seventh in interceptions, and this spring, he could be lining up at either safety or cornerback.
Senior Wesley Pendleton started 10 games at corner after transferring from junior college and expects to be another leader in the Rebel defensive backfield. Other cornerbacks in the mix this spring include Brassell, JUCO newcomer Dehendret Collins and sophomore Cliff Coleman.
Sophomore Cody Prewitt emerged late last season, starting the final five games, and is a candidate at free safety, while junior Brishen Mathews is also a factor. At the Huskie and Rover positions, senior Aaron Garbutt, who started nine games in his first season in the Red and Blue, and redshirt freshman Chief Brown will be key contributors, while junior Frank Crawford and redshirt freshman Denzel Nkemdiche will compete for playing time.
At linebacker, leading tackler Mike Marry is back for his junior season and will supply leadership from the Mike, particularly with junior D.T. Shackelford missing spring drills following a second surgery on his left knee in January. At the strongside, senior Joel Kight has started 15 games the past two years and boasts 114 career tackles. Sophomores Serderius Bryant and Ralph Williams both showed flashes in their rookie seasons and will be prominent in the rotation. Fellow sophomore Keith Lewis will be sidelined for the spring recovering from shoulder surgery.
On the defensive line, the coaches are looking to a trio of seniors to help revive the “Landshark” attack. Jones and Gerald Rivers are fourth-year Rebels at the ends, while Uriah Grant started seven games as a junior college transfer last year. Sophomore Bryon Bennett is a returning starter at nose tackle, while high school teammate Carlton Martin earned two starts at tackle a season ago. Redshirt freshman Woodrow Hamilton and senior Gilbert Pena also provide depth in the interior. C.J. Johnson moved from linebacker to rush end as a freshman and provided a lift, and he and junior Cameron Whigham will be factors on the edge.
Special teams play will be a strength of the Rebels again in 2012, led by 2010 NCAA punting champion and two-time All-SEC senior Tyler Campbell. Senior Andrew Ritter continues to excel on kickoffs, while senior Bryson Rose has made 25-of-29 career field goals and 65-of-67 PATs.
In the return game, Scott has established himself as a weapon, ranking 20th in the nation in kickoff returns in 2010 and helping Ole Miss finish third as a team in punt returns in 2011. Singleton was the leader in kickoff returns last year with a 24.6-yard clip, which ranked sixth in the SEC.
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