After historic start at Ole Miss, Hugh Freeze now must win without 2013 core

Ole Miss’ hiring of Hugh Freeze in early December of 2011 was met with mixed reviews. He just didn’t resonate with others floating around for the job.

The former high school success story and Arkansas State coach didn’t seem ready to take over a program that needed a major facelift in the SEC. His Mississippi roots and his love for Ole Miss didn’t exactly guarantee wins.

Funny things happen when you just give people a chance.

Four years later, Freeze, the kid from up the road in Independence, Mississippi, has the once-irrelevant Rebels ranked No. 12 nationally and headed to New Orleans for the Allstate Sugar Bowl after back-to-back nine-win seasons. It’s the first Sugar Bowl appearance for Ole Miss since legendary quarterback Archie Manning guided the Rebels there in 1970.

“I am very excited to be playing in the Sugar Bowl,” Freeze said. “I still have to pinch myself sometimes. It is definitely a bucket-list deal for me and our program. ... I actually have written in my book, called ‘The Journey,’ that it was one of my bucket-list items. It is exciting to be able to check that off.”

Freeze waded through the uncertainty to prove he was, in fact, the right choice to lead this program out of the shadows of the SEC West Division, but his biggest task will come after the Sugar Bowl.

Freeze has made four straight bowl games and won 33 games (the most in a four-year span at Ole Miss since John Vaught from 1960-63), but once the clock hits zeros down on Bourbon Street, Ole Miss will likely lose the core of a special 2013 recruiting class that helped frame Freeze’s early success in Oxford.

The heads of the class likely gone after the New Year’s Day clash with No. 16 Oklahoma State (10-2, 7-2 Big 12) are left tackle Laremy Tunsil, a projected top-five NFL draft pick; defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, a projected top-five draft pick; and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, a top-20 draft prospect and a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top receiver. The Rebels could also lose key components in tight end Evan Engram, Ole Miss’ all-time leader among tight ends with 1,298 receiving yards, and safety Tony Conner, who was projected as an early-round pick before suffering a knee injury early in the season.

Freeze said Monday that he expects Conner to return, but Engram is “still in the air some.”

Losing the terrific trio of Tunsil, Nkemdiche and Treadwell will alter the identity of the Rebels. Tunsil is viewed as the top left tackle prospect in the draft, while Nkemdiche could be the first defensive lineman taken. Treadwell, who led the SEC with 1,082 receiving yards this season, ranks second in school history with 196 career receptions, fourth with 2,322 receiving yards, fourth with 18 touchdown catches and is tied for second with nine career 100-yard receiving games.

Those three players are invaluable, but Freeze’s ability to build around them has shown he’s up for the task of moving on without them. And in 2015, Freeze was able to win nine games without all three playing together for most of the season.

“The 2013 class has had some signature wins,” Freeze said, “along with other classes. They can’t do it alone.”

While Freeze will likely see an immediate talent dip without those three, his bulldog recruiting efforts have allowed him to plug guys in like never before. In order to stay relevant, Freeze was eventually going to have to part with his 2013 studs and usher in new blood.

The 2013 class laid the foundation, but Freeze has added bodies like few Ole Miss coaches before him. Treadwell might be on his way out, but Damore'ea Stringfellow, Quincy Adeboyejo and Markell Pack should pick up the slack. Freshman Breeland Speaks really impressed when Nkemdiche was out, and rush-end Marquis Haynes is one of the SEC’s best on the outside. C.J. Hampton could be an outstanding safety, and the corner duo of Tony Bridges and Kendarius Webster is impressive.

And the return of record-setting quarterback Chad Kelly would be a major lift for Freeze.

In Year 4, Freeze has his team standing with Alabama, which he’s beaten in back-to-back years, in the postseason. They’re the only SEC teams to play in New Year’s Six bowls in consecutive seasons, and Freeze is using Bama as a template for his program.

“Their consistency speaks from the job that they have done through the 10-12 years of building a depth chart that allows them to grind through the course of the season,” Freeze said of the Alabama model. “That’s what we are attempting to do also. We are getting much closer.”

He certainly is, even if next season will be a turning point for Freeze. We’ll find out just how good Freeze is when he ventures through his journey without the main pieces that helped him get to this point.

“Hopefully, we continue to build what we started here,” Freeze said.