- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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OXFORD, Miss. -- Ole Miss’ football program is stuck in the wilderness -- a scary place, filled with a plethora of overgrown obstacles.
When coach Hugh Freeze arrived last December, he says the jungle was as thick as ever and it didn’t look like his new team was ready to cut its way out.
That was until Freeze offered a solution: his “Journey.” He told players that he didn’t know how long it would take for them to make it out or find some sort of salvation, but if they followed him, they’d find the light.
“The reasonable expectation for us in Year 1 is for us to compete passionately for this university for 60 minutes,” Freeze said. “And whatever that scoreboard says at the end of that 60 minutes we’ll have to live with.”
The Rebels will have to plod through this quagmire, but Freeze insists patience is the key to turning around a program that is less than three years removed from a second straight Cotton Bowl victory.
“It’s well-documented that we don’t have the talent level that people in the SEC West have right now at a lot of spots, at least not the depth,” Freeze said. “That’s not fixed overnight.”
And it’s just one of the handful of problems Freeze is looking to fix, as he replaces Houston Nutt, who was once heralded as Ole Miss' greatest hire. Academic and discipline issues are also on the agenda. As Freeze puts it, he has “a few mountains to climb” before he can shape things up, but since the journey began in December, progress has been made.
Freeze said probably 65-70 percent of the players have bought in, which might be a conservative number. It’s better than what he expected, considering the trust issues and players being set in their old ways of doing “what they’ve wanted to do for themselves for so long.”
“They think they like it the way they had it, even though, if they’re intelligent enough, they look at the results,” he said. “You’re will is something that’s hard to change once you get set.”
Freeze put the Rebels’ abysmal 6-18 two-year record and 14 straight SEC losses front and center as motivation, he made academics more of a priority, looked to adjust Ole Miss’ lenient drug policy, and created accountability groups.
Everything has helped, but the accountability groups really took off.
They were created to show players how much their actions affected everyone. Miss class? Your group runs at 5 a.m. Miss tutoring? Group run; 5 a.m. Late for anything? Welcome the sun with some running.
Rising junior linebacker Mike Marry said his group never ran – he made sure of it – but he saw other groups running as much as five times during a two-week span. The running cut down as the spring went on and there was hardly any toward the end.
“That’s what I like about him,” Marry said of Freeze, “he doesn’t let little things slide.
“The last coaches, they let certain things slide. Certain things were small, but eventually they start building up and turn into big things and people started feeling like they could get away with more and more things. Since he’s not letting little things slide, you’re seeing the team come together closer and closer and there are fewer problems.”
Freeze said eliminating off-field trouble is top priority. That’s why he’s so nervous about leaving his players in their own hands during the true offseason. Progress was made, but he worries guys will fall back on old habits when less supervised.
To ease his mind, Freeze turns to recruiting. With Ole Miss so thin at defensive tackle, offensive line, running back and safety, and needing walk-ons to fill three full teams in practice (on both sides), Freeze is stacking recruiting on recruiting.
He had some early success in his first class, grabbing three Under Armour All-Americans – DT Issac Gross, DE Channing Ware and DB Trae Elston -- and two junior college All-Americans – QB Bo Wallace and OT Pierce Burton – and his roll has continued with nine commitments in hand for 2013.
Recruiting at Ole Miss has hardly ever been easy with schools like Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Georgia in such close proximity, but Freeze believes he’ll make it work. And he’ll do it by going after the top prospects, not by getting lax and offering whomever to fill space.
“We can make it easy in recruiting, now, and I think that’s what’s happened,” he said.
“I know you can recruit here. I’ve been here before when we did it and when we had 20 kids drafted in the NFL in those three classes that we brought in.
“Is it easy? No, but it is doable.”
Fixing Ole Miss is also doable, he said. It’s going to take a lot of work and a lot of time, but it requires patience. Freeze’s mantra is “Winning the day,” not winning the week.
“The one thing that we have that’s constant and equal [to opponents] is time,” Freeze said. “So, what are we doing to prepare for that end goal -- whatever that is -- today?
“We’re a fragile state of mind right now and when you start talking about things that are so far out there, I don’t think that will be beneficial to us. Let’s just talk about today.”
Freeze might be preaching about today, but you can sense the confidence growing inside players, especially wide receiver Donte Moncrief, who took things a step further.
“Everybody keeps putting us under the radar, but once we learn this offense and the defense keeps playing like it’s playing, we’re going to shock a lot of teams,” he said.
What a journey that’d be.