Spring Football Review
May 16, 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."
He inherited a team that returns 59 lettermen, including 28 on offense, 26 on defense and five specialists. That group received immediate help in the spring with the addition of four, talented mid-year transfers.
The first step for Freeze was to address conditioning. To lead that transformation, he turned to strength coach Paul Jackson, who brought an impressive resume from Southern Miss and LSU, among other stops.
"Paul Jackson is a rising star in the strength and conditioning world, and he made an instant impact in the mental and physical toughness of our players," Freeze said.
Conditioning was key as players adjusted to Freeze's fast tempo of practice in the spring. Overall, he was pleased with what was accomplished over the 15 workouts, which concluded with a spirited overtime scrimmage in the BancorpSouth Grove Bowl on April 24.
"I don't think we got everything installed that we wanted to, but I do think we made the most out of the days we had," said Freeze. "We chose to stop, stall and try to get better at certain things, and I think we did that. I don't know if you ever get everything in that you want, but I do think we made the most out of our time."
Tempo is again the key word when referencing Freeze's offense, which has been fast-paced and high-scoring throughout his career.
"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."
Ole Miss returned seven starters from an offense that struggled last year. Among the highlights of the unit in the spring were receivers Donte Moncrief, a 2011 freshman All-America honoree, and Ja-Mes Logan, who was named the most outstanding offensive player of spring drills.
Sophomore Collins Moore showed flashes in the spring, while sophomore Vince Sanders and juniors Terrell Grant, Philander Moore and Korvic Neat got acclimated to Freeze's wide-open attack. New to the slot in the spring was senior Randall Mackey, who was moved all over the field to be ensured more touches.
Both starting tight ends returned in seniors Jamal Mosley and Ferbia Allen, who hauled in 12 and six catches last season, respectively. Hard-working senior E.J. Epperson moved from the backfield back to his original position of tight end in the spring for depth.
The biggest question mark of the spring was at quarterback, which ended with junior Barry Brunetti and sophomore transfer Bo Wallace in a dead heat for the starting job. Brunetti started the Rebels' first and last games in the fall, while Wallace led East Mississippi Community College to a national championship, shattering NJCAA single-season passing records.
In the BancorpSouth Grove Bowl, Brunetti rushed for a game-high 136 yards (14 att.) and passed for 62 yards (4-of-10), while Wallace threw for 240 yards (16-of-26) and two touchdowns.
Returning leading rusher Jeff Scott showed in the spring what a playmaker he can be in the new offense. The junior running back ran for 529 yards and six TDs and finished eighth in the SEC in all-purpose yards in 2011.
Seniors Devin Thomas and H.R. Greer and sophomores Nicholas Parker and Tobias Singleton, who moved from receiver in the spring, provide depth in the thin backfield, as Ole Miss enters life after Brandon Bolden. The New England Patriots signee finished his career second in school history in rushing and total touchdowns and third in all-purpose yards.
There are also personnel to replace on the offensive line, including a pair of NFL tackles in Bradley Sowell and Bobby Massie, who bypassed his senior season to enter the draft. Massie was a fourth-round selection of Arizona, while Sowell signed with Tampa Bay.
Five returning offensive linemen have each started five or more games in their career, including junior starting center Evan Swindall. Senior A.J. Hawkins and sophomore Aaron Morris settled in at the guards during the spring, while a pair of potential first-time starters, junior Emmanuel McCray and mid-year JUCO transfer Pierce Burton, have taken the lead at the tackles.
Defensively, Ole Miss ranked 22nd in the nation in stopping the pass a year ago, and that secondary will be relied upon in a Freeze defense that will utilize multiple packages. Headlining the group is junior safety Charles Sawyer, who finished fourth in the SEC in passes defended and seventh in interceptions.
Among the strongest areas of the spring was at cornerback led by a pair of Copiah-Lincoln Community College products. Senior Wesley Pendleton, who started 10 games last year, was selected by the coaches as the most outstanding defensive player of spring drills, while junior Dehendret Collins jumped immediately into action after arriving on campus in January. Also in the mix at corner are sophomores Cliff Coleman and Senquez Golson, who spent his spring with the Rebel baseball team, along with redshirt freshman Abdul Bangura.
Senior Tanner Burns and redshirt freshman Chief Brown emerged as the leading candidates at free safety, while junior Brishen Mathews took the lead at the Huskie position. Sophomore Cody Prewitt, who started the final five games of the fall and battled injuries in the spring, senior Ivan Nicholas and junior Frank Crawford will also compete for snaps in the secondary.
At the Stinger position, senior Aaron Garbutt, who started nine games in his first season in the Red and Blue, and redshirt freshman Denzel Nkemdiche impressed in the spring. Injuries cost sophomore Keith Lewis the entire spring, but he could also be in the picture as the season nears.
At Mike linebacker, 2011 All-SEC honoree and leading tackler Mike Marry supplied leadership this offseason, particularly with junior D.T. Shackelford missing spring drills following a second surgery on his left knee in January. Senior Joel Kight, who boasts 114 career tackles and 15 starts the last two years, and sophomores Ralph Williams and Serderius Bryant provide strong experience in the linebacking corps.
On the defensive line, the coaches are looking to revive the "Landshark" attack and saw potential this spring in sophomore Bryon Bennett, a returning starter at tackle. Senior Uriah Grant, who started seven games as a junior college transfer last year, was limited in spring with injuries but is expected to be a factor in the interior along with redshirt freshman Woodrow Hamilton, senior Gilbert Pena and sophomore Carlton Martin.
At defensive end, sophomore C.J. Johnson continued his development in the spring after moving from linebacker in the fall. Junior Cameron Whigham and seniors Gerald Rivers, whose spring participation was limited, and Jason Jones, who received the 2012 Chucky Mullins Courage Award, are all candidates on the edge.
Special teams remains a strength of the Rebels, led by 2010 NCAA punting champion and two-time All-SEC senior Tyler Campbell. In addition, senior K Bryson Rose has made 25-of-29 career field goals and 65-of-67 PATs, while senior Andrew Ritter is one of the SEC's best at kickoffs.
In the return game, Scott has established himself as a weapon during his career, ranking 20th in the country in kickoff returns in 2010 and helping Ole Miss finish third as a team nationally in punt returns in 2011. Singleton is also lethal on kickoffs after ranking sixth in the SEC a year ago.
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