- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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OXFORD, Miss. -- Hugh Freeze reaches up and brushes his hair back with his right hand as he slides back into his office chair inside his oversized office in the heart of Ole Miss’ newly renovated football facility.
He’s reaching for a thought, as he tries to remember a laundry list of young names he doesn’t want to forget while he rattles off players he’s excited about.
After mentioning a handful, he runs out of names and sports a faint smile which slowly covers his face after a reporter points out that this is the first time he’s seen him smile about his team without provocation.
Ole Miss’ head coach, who is entering what many in Oxford hope is a very exciting and accomplished third year with the Rebels, has too many names to remember and is genuinely excited about the team he has in front of him. Following his second straight winning season and bowl win, Freeze is manning a team that returns 16 starters and 60 lettermen.
Freeze admits that he thought the only real serious bowl talk he’d have with his team would come in Year 3. He also thought it would take three full recruiting classes in order to have adequate SEC depth. But as he relaxes in his chair and talks about his team, you can feel the ease in his voice. With 15 wins (two bowl victories) in two years after the incredible rut this program was in when Freeze took over, Ole Miss is ahead of schedule. Freeze says players are buying in, depth is improving, leaders are emerging and the talent pool is much deeper now than it has been in years.
Freeze doesn’t know if his excess smiling or a more gratifying start to spring will result in more wins in 2014, but he knows the product he has now is better than what he had during his two prior springs.
“I just know today when we step on that practice field, we’re better than we were [last year],” Freeze told ESPN.com last week. “I know that today.”
Today, no games will be played, but the wheels are in motion in Oxford. With depth improving after two solid recruiting classes, including that monster of a 2013 haul, Freeze decided to up the intensity this spring. He wanted a more physical practice because he felt his team could finally take it.
There’s always the risk of injury when you ramp up the contact, but extra quality bodies sprinkled around eases those worries. Players embraced a more rugged spring, Freeze said. Last season was another step forward for the Rebels, but Freeze knows neither he nor his players were satisfied with winning just eight games.
“I’m really pleased with where we are in attitude and effort,” Freeze said.
“There’s no possible way that I could do what we’ve done this spring and expect to finish [the spring] feeling good, but we’re a lot deeper than we have been. The good teams have physical springs, and I know that it helps you get better if you can survive it.”
One reason for the increased depth, intensity and confidence is that 2013 class. Headlined by ESPN 300 studs Robert Nkemdiche (the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect), Laquon Treadwell, Laremy Tunsil and Tony Conner, Ole Miss’ 2013 class landed in Oxford with historic hype and crazy expectations. Even with enough golden stars attached to their names to light the night sky, these freshmen didn’t boast about their high-profiled prep careers, Freeze said. They were humble when they arrived, and that only increased after strength coach Paul Jackson got ahold of them before fall camp.
“They weren’t five-star players anymore,” quarterback Bo Wallace said with a smile, “they were Ole Miss football players. That’s how we treated them and they loved it.”
For Nkemdiche, whose hype dwarfed that of his classmates, living up to lofty expectations was be tough, but he said he and his classmates got together to discuss drowning out the talk and focusing on football. They wanted wins and wanted to change the program.
Slowly, it’s happening, and the freshmen are making sure the process continues under their watch.
“They want it to be a high level of competitive juices flowing every day and that’s the next step for us to win the day, so to speak,” Freeze said. “We have to have people like that who bring it every day, and those are the ones that naturally will help our team follow a lot quicker.”
After winning eight in 2013, the Rebels face much higher expectations this fall, and while depth is still an issue at receiver and along the offensive line, players and coaches feel confident that this year could be special.
With questions piling up around the SEC in 2014, the Rebels hope they have plenty of answers this fall.
“The expectations for us are just growing and growing and I feel like some of the other teams around the conference lost some of their key players,” Nkemdiche said. “I feel like it’s our turn to take over and do big things.”
2dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
3dTom VanHaaren and Erik McKinney