- Alex Scarborough, ESPN Staff Writer
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It’s not that Ole Miss had a terrible season last year. The Rebs, under coach Hugh Freeze, won eight games for the first time since 2009. Freeze admittedly was pleasantly surprised by how far the program had come since he took over following a 2-10 season in 2011. To anyone who’d ask, he’d say that he thought the process of fielding a competitive football team in the SEC would have taken longer.
Recruiting will do that for you.
Freeze changed the mentality of Ole Miss football in the blink of an eye. That day was Feb. 6, 2013, when the program’s news release -- “Ole Miss Lands Historic Signing Class -- was, for once, not an overstatement. Eleven All-Americans headlined the class, including the No. 1 overall prospect, Robert Nkemdiche. All told, Freeze signed four recruits who were considered the best prospects at their position, according to ESPN.
Relying heavily on freshmen such as Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss began the 2013 season on a tear, beating both Vanderbilt and Texas on the road. Losses at Alabama and Auburn weren’t altogether unexpected, and when the Rebs returned home, they beat No. 6-ranked LSU in dramatic fashion.
But somewhere along the way, things changed. After reeling off five victories in a row, Ole Miss began to falter, losing two in a row to Missouri and Mississippi State.
Dropping the Egg Bowl in overtime was particularly painful. Freeze would look at the film each Sunday and see mental and physical breakdowns from his players. The level of consistency wasn’t there.
“We just didn’t play as crisp,” he said.
They lost to Missouri because they drove into the red zone three times and couldn’t punch it in. They lost to Ole Miss because Bo Wallace was on his way into the end zone and had the football punched from his grasp.
“You could see kids making some mistakes they didn’t make earlier in the year,” Freeze said.
Freeze looked in the mirror and decided, “I have to look at what I do.”
“We weren’t the same,” Freeze said. “Now we lost C.J. Johnson, Aaron Morris, Evan Engram, Charles Sawyer, Denzel [Nkemdiche], Robert [Nkemdiche]. We lost five games. But for whatever reason we weren’t the same. We think part of it was the mental fatigue.
“Year 2, I expect them to handle that much better.”
It isn’t just that Wallace’s shoulder has finally recovered. It isn’t even that those sidelined players are back. Freeze believes Year 2 will be different because that much-talked-about signing class from 2013 is more mature. The growing pains those freshmen went through last season should make them better prepared as sophomores.
“Those young kids, as many as we played, physically, you would look at them and say, ‘They look the part,’” Freeze said. “But mentally it took a toll on them. We played four out of the first five [games] on the road. Every one of them was 7 or 8 p.m. kickoffs. We’re getting back at 4 a.m., and those high school kids, that’s a new world for them.”
This season’s schedule is more favorable, with four of the first seven games in Oxford, Mississippi. And if that’s not enough, Freeze is considering altering his weekly schedule after the fatigue he saw last season, whether that means changing practice times or taking Sundays off entirely. If Ole Miss wants to be a contender in the SEC West, keeping consistent throughout the season is a must.
“I assure you that I’ll be looking at it,” he said. “Last year I had blinders and was saying, ‘Let’s get ready for the next one.’ I didn’t think about, ‘Hey, somewhere in here they’ve lost 2-3 days.’ When you get back at 4 a.m. for five straight weeks, that’s part of my learning curve.”
For the players’ part, they’re taking some of the onus on themselves.
“I’ve never seen since I’ve been here people getting extra work on their own, going out and doing cone drills and things like that,” Wallace said. “I think everyone is ready to go.”
Veteran defensive end C.J. Johnson said the way last season ended should be motivation enough.
“It was kind of taking a toll on everybody because we had been through so much as a football team: a close loss at Auburn, a close loss at A&M, the Alabama game was a lot closer than the score was,” he said. “So, you know, going through all that physical grind and then to drop the Egg Bowl the way we did, I think it kind of pushed a couple of guys.”
The hard part isn’t pushing through fall camp, though. For Ole Miss, the real test will come when they realize they’ve pushed enough. After all, you can’t go anywhere without ample gas in the tank.