Rebels still have hill to climb under Freeze

OXFORD, Miss. -- Hunched over his desktop computer while in his black, leather rolling chair inside an office full of boxes ready to be moved to a new headquarters on a satisfyingly warm day in late March, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze talks on the phone with an assistant about a player’s grades.

The news isn’t great, but after a few minutes sliding around in his chair, a hint of relief hits Freeze’s voice when he realizes the semester isn’t quite over yet. There’s still time.

Seconds later, he’s back over the computer, this time listening to a link of a pastor rapping her sermon. Her verse barely takes minutes, leaving Freeze jokingly (or not) wondering what could be if he was a part of her congregation.

“A sermon in a minute, 40 [seconds]?” Freeze says with his classic southern drawl and pleasant boyish laughter. “I’d love that.”

For a second, Freeze is relaxed as he reclines, props his Ole Miss-flavored Nikes on his desk and greets the day with an ear-to-ear grin.

He’s only a couple of hours removed from the spring’s first scrimmage, surrounded by boxed chaos, working with grade issues and dealing with a mammoth hype machine parked in the Grove after a surprisingly successful first season and a historic national signing day. But while his mind moves a mile a minute, he’s finally stationary.

Soon, his body will follow his mind, as he analyzes his inadequate team depth, searches for more SEC-caliber athletes and attempts to handle the newfound attention his players are receiving.

“Obviously, they’ve got a lot of people telling them how great we did last year, even though it was just seven wins,” Freeze said. “It was a good first year and then follow it up with the recruiting class, so they’re hearing from a lot of places how well things are going and how we should do very, very well next year, but they better not lose sight of how we won those games.

“We have to temper our expectations some. Yeah, we had a good recruiting class, but so did everybody else in our conference. And some of them have had five, six classes like that in a row. We’ve got one.”

Expectations soared after Ole Miss signed the No. 5 recruiting class in the country, headlined by the nation’s consensus No. 1 player in defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, the No. 1 receiver (Laquon Treadwell), the No. 1 offensive tackle (Laremy Tunsil) and the No. 2 safety (Antonio Conner).

It’s a special class that has people craving more following a 7-6 season that took Ole Miss bowling for the first time since 2009 and ripped the Rebels from the ranks of mediocre.

But there's more adding to the hype. Ole Miss lost just three true starters from 2012 and returns just about every part of an offense that averaged 423.8 yards and 31.5 points per game. High-flying receiver Donte Moncrief (979 yards, 10 touchdowns) returns, along with four starting offensive linemen and quarterback Bo Wallace, who is out this spring recovering from shoulder surgery.

The defense is still intact, and could have potential game-changers in end C.J. Johnson (out this spring with a broken ankle), linebackers Mike Marry and Denzel Nkemdiche (Robert’s big brother and an All-SEC freshman) and safety Trae Elston.

But depth concerns linger, especially up front and at wide receiver. Freeze thinks it will take one more recruiting cycle to fix things on the defensive line and another two for the offensive line.

He also understands that while 2012 was exciting, Ole Miss was fortunate when it came to injuries. The Rebels played the same five offensive linemen and three starting receivers all season. That’s unheard of, and chances are it won’t happen again.

He wants to rotate quality linemen “like the Alabamas and LSUs” and have a solid three-deep across the board in order to combat injuries. Right now, Freeze doesn’t have the horses to do that.

And without those horses, Freeze isn’t na├»ve to the fact that Ole Miss, which has never played in the SEC championship game in Atlanta and has had just 13 winning seasons since the league expanded in 1992, has quite the SEC hill to climb to escape what he calls the “wilderness.” Getting out means acquiring “true SEC depth,” and becoming a “legitimate factor in deciding who will win the SEC West every year.”

Freeze’s team isn’t there, but he never thought it’d be an overnight transformation.

“I understand very clearly who we are, and you’re not going to win this conference every year at Ole Miss, right now,” he said. “Very few teams have been able to do that, but let’s become a player in it. Let’s be relevant. Let’s be relevant in the discussions of it.”

For now, Freeze can’t control depth, so he controlled internal perception. With the offseason conditioning he had strength coach Paul Jackson orchestrate, complacency wasn’t an option for players.

There were quick blowout drills mixed in with sprints and long runs intended to build endurance, while breaking spirits. And timed 90- and 100-yard suicides that forced skill players to finish in 13 seconds. Linebackers had 15-16 seconds and linemen had 17-18.

Missed times meant post-session gassers.

“The offseason was crazy,” Moncrief said with an exhausted-sounding sigh. “Coach Jackson gave us everything possible to do to see how far we could go.

“Every time he gave us something, we just knocked it out of the way.”

They knocked it away because they felt they needed it, Moncrief added. Players weren’t satisfied with 7-6 or the bumbling fourth quarters that cost them wins against Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and LSU. Even before Jackson’s madness began, players got together to run, study and train.

This hype is new for Ole Miss, but players want to prove 2012 wasn’t a fluke and that better days are coming. That’s why they took to early conditioning and embrace higher expectations.

“We have no choice but to live up to the hype,” Denzel Nkemdiche said. “We know we have to live up to the hype or else we don’t meet expectations, and we want to exceed expectations.

“We don’t want to say we’ve arrived, but we know we’re here. We know we have everything we need to play for a huge BCS game.”