SEC: Mike Marry

Before you can even finish uttering the words "fourth quarter" together, Ole Miss linebacker D.T. Shackelford cuts you off to convey the feelings that have haunted the Rebels for the last year.

Hugh Freeze
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsThe fourth quarter wasn't kind to Hugh Freeze's Rebels in 2012. Will that change this season?
"Finishing, finishing, finishing," Shackelford said. "No doubt we have the talent, we just have to finish it."

His words are deafening around Ole Miss' football complex. For all the good that came out of Hugh Freeze's first season as the Rebels' head coach, there was a lot of bad in the fourth quarter. A 7-6 season was nice, but there were at least two more victories there if not for fourth-quarter stumbles.

The Rebels were outscored 109-92 in fourth quarters in 2012. Ole Miss was outscored in the final frame in all six losses, while outscoring opponents in the fourth in four of its seven wins.

But where they felt the sting the most was in fourth quarters against LSU, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt. Ole Miss blew a 10-point lead to the Aggies with help from a failed fourth-and-1 late and an 88-yard A&M touchdown drive. LSU went back-and-forth, but the Rebels were outscored 21-7 in the fourth. But Vanderbilt hurt the most, as the Rebels lost a 23-6 third-quarter lead.

"If you go watch the tape and you go look at the stat sheet and everything, you're gonna say, 'You know what? I think I'd pick that Ole Miss won these three games,'" Freeze said, whose team out-gained LSU and Vandy in both losses.

Instead, they went 0-3 and were left with three too many "what ifs."

The Rebels are looking to avoid the "what ifs" in 2013. Youth, inexperience and depth issues contributed to some of Ole Miss' fourth-quarter follies, Shackelford said, but the Rebels' staff will take preparing for the fourth quarter a step further this season.

Strength coach Paul Jackson made life for players a living hell during the offseason. Depth issues remain so making players more physically fit for the fourth quarter became a top priority during training season.

So what did the Rebels endure? A ton of short sprints, shuttles (suicide runs), 100-yard sprints and fast-paced, fast-twitch workouts. When breaks finally came, they were short. Twenty-to-25 seconds for sprints, while fast-twitch workouts went to exhaustion.

Linebacker Mike Marry said the toughest conditioning drill was the 90-yard suicide shuttles, while receiver Donte Moncrief dreaded the 100-yard sprints. For those, skill players had to make it to the end zone in at least 13 seconds, linebackers had 15 seconds and linemen had 17 seconds. Players did 10 with 20-second breaks.

"Doing those, you can look in someone's face and say he's giving it everything he's got," Moncrief said.

Conditioning was brutal, but players agree that it was worth it. This team seemed drained in fourth quarters in 2012, especially in those three crushing losses.

Tonight's opponent, Vandy, punched the Rebels in the jaw at home last season by ending last year's game on a 21-3 run after trailing by 17 in the third quarter. It started with a 52-yard third-quarter touchdown catch by Jordan Matthews and ended with a 26-yard touchdown reception by Chris Boyd with 52 seconds remaining.

Even though Ole Miss out-gained the Commodores 145-101 in the fourth and 249-239 in the second half, the Rebels mustered just 10 second-half points and went 4-for-10 on third down, including a failed third-and-goal in the fourth that led to a field goal.

"We gotta be able to last throughout the game because it's a brutal conference," defensive line coach Chris Kiffin said.

The Rebels hope their bodies come through in the fourth, but they're also counting on their minds. Those fourth-quarter wounds are still fresh, but that pain serves as a motivator.

"I don't like to lose, but in a way, losing some of those close games is going to help this program in the future," Marry said. "It lets the players see that you have to give it your all each and every play. Even when you're up, you can't relax because the other team can always bounce back."
In the SEC, it's all about recruiting and player development. It's the big reason why the league has won seven straight BCS championships and produced more NFL players than any other conference. The two go hand-in-hand.

The Senior Bowl, which released its 2014 Watch List on Tuesday, further illustrated that fact, selecting nearly 20 percent (72) of its 400 candidates from the SEC. The ACC twas nearly lapped with 48 selections, followed by the Big 10 (46) and the Pac-12 (38).

And the team with the most players should come as no surprise as defending-champion Alabama had 10 make the list, including quarterback AJ McCarron and All-American linebacker C.J. Mosley. Florida, Mississippi State and Missouri tied for the second-most players taken from the SEC with six apiece.

Alabama: WR Kenny Bell, CB Deion Belue, CB John Fulton, P Cody Mandell, QB AJ McCarron, LB C.J. Mosley, WR Kevin Norwood, RG Anthony Steen, S Nick Perry.

Arkansas: WR Jevontee Herndon, DT Brian Jones, DE Chris Smith, C Travis Swanson, DT Robert Thomas.

Auburn: P Steven Clark, DC Chris Davis, DE Nosa Eguae, DE Dee Ford, FB Jay Prosch, DT Jeffrey Whitaker

Florida: WR Andre Debose, DE Dominique Easley, OG Jon Halapio, C Jonatthan Harrison, WR Soloman Patton, DC Jaylen Watkins.

Georgia: OG Chris Burnett, OG Kernarious Gates, TE Arthur Lynch, QB Aaron Murray, OB Garrison Smith.

Kentucky: IB Avery Williamson

LSU: IB Lamin Barrow, RB Alfred Blue, FB JC Copeland, FS Craig Loston, QB Zach Mettenberger

Mississippi State: DE Denico Autry, OG Gabe Jackson, RB LeDarious Perkins, QB Tyler Russell, OB Deontae Skinner, FS Nickoe Whitley

Missouri: OT Justin Britt, QB James Franklin, DC EJ Gaines, WR Marcus Lucas, WR L'Damian Washington, IB Andrew Wilson

Ole Miss: PT Tyler Campbell, IB Mike Marry, DC Charles Sawyer, RB Jeff Scott, IB DT Shackleford

South Carolina: DC Jimmy Legree, QB Connor Shaw, DE Chaz Sutton

Tennessee: OT Ju'Wuan James, DT Daniel McCuller, RB Rajon Neal, DE Jacques Smith, C James Stone

Texas A&M: LB Steven Jenkins, RB Ben Malena, OT Jake Matthews

Vanderbilt: IB Chase Garnham, DC Andre Hal, OT Wesley Johnson, FS Kenny Ladler, WR Jordan Matthews

Ole Miss season preview

August, 8, 2013
8/08/13
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Today, we're looking at Ole Miss, which enters the 2013 season under the heavy weight of expectations.

Ole Miss

Coach: Hugh Freeze (37-13 overall, 7-6 at Ole Miss)

2012 record: 7-6

Key losses: OG A.J. Hawkins, RB/WR Randall Mackey, DT Gilbert Pena, K Bryson Rose

[+] EnlargeHugh Freeze
AP Photo/Bill HaberHugh Freeze and the Rebels had the No. 5 ranked recruiting class in 2013. How big of an impact will those freshmen make this season?
Key returnees: LB C.J. Johnson, LB Mike Marry, WR Donte Moncrief, OG Aaron Morris, LB Denzel Nkemdiche, CB Charles Sawyer, RB Jeff Scott, QB Bo Wallace

Newcomer to watch: WR Laquon Treadwell

Biggest games in 2013: at Vanderbilt (Aug. 29), at Alabama (Sept. 28), vs. Texas A&M (Oct. 12), at Mississippi State (Nov. 28)

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The enthusiasm is sky high around Oxford, Miss., these days as Hugh Freeze has injected life into a program that had spent much of the past decade floundering in the SEC. Thanks to a surprisingly competitive 2012 season and a recruiting haul that turned heads around the country, the Rebels are back on the map. But with recognition comes expectations. And despite Freeze's best attempts at trading short-term hopes for long-term goals, his team has to sustain the momentum the program has built and remain competitive despite an obvious lack of depth and a difficult schedule. The young talent he's assembled on campus -- big names like Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil -- won't have long to adjust to the limelight and learn how to play at the next level. How Ole Miss does this season might depend on it.

Forecast: For all the attention Ole Miss has gotten nationally of late, the fact remains that the Rebels finished the 2012 season a .500 team trying to get into a bowl game. Playing competitive football against the likes of Alabama and LSU is one thing. Winning those games is another thing altogether. With many of its key pieces returning from a season ago, Ole Miss has the talent to challenge the league's best, but conquering a stacked SEC West seems improbable the way the schedule is laid out with early challenges against Vanderbilt, Texas, Alabama and Texas A&M all coming in the first six weeks.

Until the SEC changes its rules, Ole Miss is going to push the tempo on offense. And with quarterback Bo Wallace back under center and potential All-SEC running back Jeff Scott and wide receiver Donte Moncrief around him, the Rebels have the right parts to orchestrate their supercharged attack. How Wallace matures and how his repaired shoulder heals will determine how far the offense goes. He told reporters at SEC media days that he's pain free, but the coaching staff has been cautious in practice, limiting the number of throws he makes each day. Getting healthy is his first step. Making better decisions and cutting down on his 17 interceptions from a year ago is the next.

If Ole Miss wants to take the next step, it must come on defense, where the Rebels finished 11th in the SEC stopping the pass. Denzel Nkemdiche is blossoming into a star at linebacker, Antonio Conner has a high ceiling at safety and defensive end Channing Ward has shown flashes of brilliance. C.J. Johnson and Mike Marry aren’t household names yet, but they soon could be. The key, however, is the improvement of the secondary. Losing Nickolas Brassell hurts, but the good news is there’s almost no turnover as its top three interception leaders return.
Ole Miss linebacker Mike Marry joked last week at SEC media days that the fans he bumps into around town might be more excited about the start of the 2013 season than even the players.

Make no mistake: The Rebels' players can't wait to dive into Year No. 2 under Hugh Freeze.

But there's a buzz around the program right now, fueled by last season's 7-6 finish and top 10 recruiting class nationally, that will undoubtedly create some unrealistic expectations this season.

Freeze is as excited as anybody about the future. He just wants to make sure everybody is on board for the long haul.

"Regardless of what anybody's expectations are for Year 2, if we are going to get the program where we all say we want to go, the goal should be to maintain our level of enthusiasm, passion and positive attitude toward the program so we can continue to build and become relevant every year in recruiting," Freeze said. "The minute all you care about is the singular expectations that you decide, and it doesn't happen, frustration will set in.

"I'm asking everyone, players and everyone, to see this through long term, and let's keep that same enthusiasm in Year 2 of this journey with what are still a bunch of young kids."

Freeze said several freshmen in the Rebels' touted 2013 class won't have to wait long to see the field. He said guys like defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, receiver Laquon Treadwell, safety Tony Conner and offensive tackles Laremy Tunsil and Austin Golson will start out with the second team during camp. And at tight end, with the knee injury to early enrollee Christian Morgan in the spring, it means incoming freshman Evan Engram will also have to jump right into the rotation.

"We only had 54 scholarship kids last year and are thin at some spots," Freeze said. "Are these kids ready to play? I don't know, but they're going to have to play. That's the position we're in."
In order to make a stand in the SEC, you have to have a strong front seven. It starts with a stout defensive line, but don't forget about those cats behind that front line.

Linebackers need love, too:

1. Alabama: For starters, "Linebacker U" will enter the 2013 season with three linebackers -- C.J. Mosley, Adrian Hubbard and Trey DePriest -- who started 10 or more games last season. Then there's Xzavier Dickson, who started seven games at the rush-end "Jack" position. All four played in every game last year, making play after play. Mosley was considered one of the nation's best linebackers and could have opted for the NFL early. He'll get even more time with Nico Johnson gone. Hubbard is the team's top pass-rusher, DePriest has transformed into a top linebacker prospect in next year's NFL draft and Dickson is versatile enough to play linebacker and on the line. There is also a ton of young talent to watch, starting with sophomore Denzel Devall, who could really break out.

[+] EnlargeLamin Barrow
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesLamin Barrow should replace some of the production the Tigers lost when Kevin Minter moved on to the NFL.
2. LSU: Kevin Minter might be gone, but the Tigers still have some quality players roaming around the position. Lamin Barrow will anchor the group and is coming off a season in which he registered 104 tackles, including 52 solo stops. He's getting a ton of NFL love and will get help from very talented sophomore Kwon Alexander, who only played seven games, but would have seen plenty more action if hadn't suffered a broken ankle midseason. Alexander could be primed for a huge season and might be the team's best linebacker. Senior Tahj Jones only played in one game last year because of academic issues, but he'll have every chance to start outside. Sophomores Deion Jones, Lamar Louis and Ronnie Feist all saw good time last year and will be in the rotation along with incoming freshman Kendell Beckwith, who could immediately push for a starting spot.

3. Ole Miss: The Rebels work in that 4-2-5 defense, but have a lot of talent at linebacker, starting with big-hitting senior captain Mike Marry, who has 22 career starts and finished last season with 78 tackles with 10.5 for loss. The pleasant surprise from this group last year was Denzel Nkemdiche, who was a second-team All-SEC member as a freshman after leading Ole Miss in tackles (82), tackles for loss (13) and forced fumbles (four). The thing that makes Nkemdiche so valuable is that he knows all of the linebacker positions and covers a ton of ground with his speed. Long-time Rebel D.T. Shackelford is back after two knee surgeries, but had a very good spring and should provide quality depth and excellent leadership. Then you have talented reserve Serderius Bryant, who could start at a lot of schools. Don't forget about the hybrid "Husky" position that will feature top recruit Antonio Conner.

4. Tennessee: The Vols bring back the league's top tackler in A.J. Johnson and excellent pass-rusher Curt Maggitt, who had his 2012 season shortened because of injury. He should be back to full health this fall, but could move to defensive end. Johnson has a chance to play his way into the first round of next year's NFL draft. Senior Dontavis Sapp doesn't have a ton of experience, but was a star this spring and has the ability to play any of the linebacker spots. Four senior backups return and have combined to play in nearly 140 games. The only problem is that they've also combined for just one start. Senior Brent Brewer also moved from safety to linebacker to give the Vols a lot of speed on the outside.

5. Florida: The Gators lost two valuable players in Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins, but they still have a ton of young talent to work with, starting with Antonio Morrison. He ran into legal trouble this summer, but he has a chance to be an All-SEC player after moving from outside to middle linebacker. Dante Fowler Jr. and Ronald Powell will rotate at the hybrid defensive end/linebacker "Buck" position, but Powell could see more time at strongside linebacker. If he's healthy after his two ACL injuries, he could be an elite pass-rusher. Hard-hitting and dependable Michael Taylor left spring as the starting weakside linebacker, while freshman Daniel McMillian had an outstanding spring at the Will position. Fellow freshman Alex Anzalone was a top recruit in the 2013 class and should vie for plenty of time, while vets Darrin Kitchens and Neiron Ball will push for starting spots.

6. Vanderbilt: This was supposed to be a concern for the Commodores last year, but it ended up being a strength. Do-everything leader Chase Garnham is back, along with his 43 solo tackles, seven sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. He's the heart of the defense. Hybrid linebacker/safety (Star) Karl Butler returns and should continue to put a lot of heat on opposing backfields. He registered 11.5 tackles for loss last season. Sophomore Darreon Herring has to replace the very reliable Archibald Barnes, but saw plenty of time last year as the Commodores' top reserve at linebacker. Sophomores Larry Franklin and Jake Sealand provide good depth after seeing significant time last year.

[+] EnlargeBenardrick McKinney
AP Photo/Don Juan MooreBenardrick McKinney was named to the Freshman All-SEC Team following last season.
7. Mississippi State: Starters Benardrick McKinney (102 tackles) and Deontae Skinner (62 tackles) return, giving Mississippi State a very sound foundation to work with. McKinney was quietly one of the league's top linebackers last year and could be even better this fall. Veteran Ferlando Bohanna, who has tremendous speed, will provide good depth, and the staff is excited about the versatility junior Matt Wells has. Losing Chris Hughes this summer hurts, but the Bulldogs will be able to cover a lot of ground with this group of rangy, athletic linebackers.

8. Georgia: Like every defensive position, the Bulldogs lost a lot at linebacker, but there is some promising young talent that should get better as the season goes on. Everything revolves around sophomore Jordan Jenkins, who could end up being an elite pass-rusher after learning under Jarvis Jones last season. Jenkins was second on the team in sacks last season with five and should be even more disruptive in Jones' old spot. Junior Amarlo Herrera started nine games and will be the captain of the unit inside. Junior Ramik Wilson had a very good spring and has found his spot inside, while sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons will play some linebacker when he isn't at safety and has a chance to be a star. Sophomore James DeLoach also had a very good spring outside. Freshmen Reggie Carter and Ryne Rankin will also have ample opportunities for good playing time this fall.

9. Kentucky: Having Alvin "Bud" Dupree moving to defensive end hurts, but the Wildcats still have two solid options returning in Avery Williamson and youngster Khalid Henderson, who has playmaker written all over him. Williamson enters his senior season with 194 career tackles. Finding someone to take the other linebacker spot is the goal of fall camp. Miles Simpson started 11 games and had 70 tackles last year, but has to be more consistent. Junior Kory Brown and sophomore Josh Forrest will compete for that spot too and might be more athletic, but they lack experience. Malcolm McDuffen still hasn't reached his potential and Demarius Rancifer has decided to transfer.

10. Texas A&M: The Aggies lost starters Jonathan Stewart and Sean Porter and are now surrounded by youth. Veteran Steven Jenkins is back, but he missed spring practice due to offseason shoulder surgery. He had time to work with junior college transfer Tommy Sanders, which will help a lot this fall, as he vies for a starting spot outside. The Aggies will have to rely on youngsters at linebacker, but junior Donnie Baggs looks like he'll start at middle linebacker. But after that it's all about newcomers, including new linebackers coach Mark Hagen. Freshmen Reggie Chevis and Brett Wade both went through spring practice, which helps, but expect growing pains from this unit.

11. Missouri: The Tigers are fortunate to have senior Andrew Wilson and his 23 career starts back, but there isn't a lot of experience beyond that. Wilson has also led the Tigers in tackles in back-to-back seasons (79 last year). Donovan Bonner, a senior, and Kentrell Brothers showed flashes this spring, but both have to be more consistent. The same goes for Darvin Ruise, who entered the spring as a starter and played primarily on special teams last year. Keep an eye on freshman Michael Scherer, who has the talent to be a stud. There is athleticism here, but tackling was a major issue with this unit last year.

12. Arkansas: The Razorbacks return veterans A.J. Turner and Otha Peters, but the best overall player at this position might be junior college transfer Martrell Spaight. That could be both good and bad, but the fact of the matter is that Turner and Peters have to improve and get over their injuries from the spring if they want starting jobs this fall. Senior Jarrett Lake had a good spring and could be the leader here. Freshman Brooks Ellis could make an immediate impact too. Experience is a bigger issue than talent with this unit. Also, the staff could spend the preseason moving everyone around.

13. Auburn: This unit really struggled last year with getting lined up right and making tackles. There should be improvement with Ellis Johnson taking over the defense, but players need to get better. Star hybrid Justin Garrett had a great spring and could be primed for a breakout year. He can play in the box and cover, so he'll really help this unit. The good news is that Johnson needs just two linebackers for his 4-2-5 scheme. But those players have to perform. Sophomore Kris Frost made strides this spring and Jake Holland is experienced, while Cassanova McKinzy and JaViere Mitchell should vie for the other linebacker spot.

14. South Carolina: The Gamecocks lost their entire two-deep at linebacker and had to move tight end Kelvin Rainey to linebacker to help with depth. There are a lot of bodies, but the experience is really lacking. Sophomore Kaiwan Lewis made strides this spring at middle linebacker, while junior Sharrod Golightly left spring with the edge at the hybrid Spur position. Freshmen T.J. Holloman and Jordan Diggs will compete for time this spring, but, again, they have no experience. Sophomore Cedrick Cooper missed spring while recovering from knee surgery, but should start at weakside linebacker.
ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. is rolling out his early top five rankings at each position this week.

Here are the positions he's looked at so far:
Now, we're checking out the top linebacker prospects for next year's NFL draft. Kiper divided things up to look at outside linebackers and inside linebackers . I'm just combing the two to make things easier for everyone.

When it comes to outside linebackers, Alabama's Adrian Hubbard comes in at No. 2 on Kiper's list. Hubbard led Alabama with seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss last season. He has what it takes to be an elite pass-rusher in the SEC, but he still has some growing to do. He has great speed, but just has to stay consistent with his speed off the edge. He's a player who Nick Saban is very excited about in 2013.

Other draft-eligible outside linebackers I'll keep an eye on this fall:
  • Tahj Jones, LSU: An academic issue kept him out of all but one game last year, but Jones should start at one of the outside spots for the Tigers this fall. He's been very productive in the 28 games he's appeared in.
  • Ronald Powell, Florida: He's coming off two ACL injuries and will be a hybrid defensive end as well. Powell was the top recruit a couple of years ago and had his best spring last year before his injury. He has all the skill to be a top-notch pass-rusher.
  • Steven Jenkins, Texas A&M: He's versatile and experienced enough to play both outside and inside. He grabbed 79 tackles, including 5.5 for loss and two sacks last year.
  • Deontae Skinner, Mississippi State: He was a little overlooked last year at his position, but Skinner is a player. He grabbed 62 tackles last year, including five for loss and forced a fumble.


As for the inside linebackers, Kiper went SEC-heavy with his top five. Alabama's C.J. Mosley comes in at No. 1 in Kiper's top five, while Trey DePriest ranks second, and Tennessee's A.J. Johnson ranks fourth.

Mosley flirted with leaving early for the NFL this year, but he will likely enhance his draft stock with one more year at Alabama. He can be an extremely aggressive player in the run, but also knows how to drop back into coverage to make plays. He's an extremely smart player and will be relied upon to be the quarterback of Bama's defense.

Joining Mosley in the middle is DePriest, who might be bigger than Mosley but is also pretty good in coverage. He's tough against the run and can get after the quarterback as well. He also puts his strength to good use on the field.

Johnson has really blossomed since arriving at Tennessee in 2011. Last year, he led the SEC with 138 tackles and continued to develop pretty much every area of his game. A lot of people think he could be a first-round draft pick next year.

Other draft-eligible inside linebackers I'll keep an eye on:
  • Lamin Barrow, LSU: He's LSU's top returning tackler (104) and he'll take over as the Tigers' defensive captain. He's a very versatile player and can play both inside and outside if needed.
  • Chase Garnham, Vanderbilt: He might not have received the same sort of attention as his fellow middle linebackers last year, but Garnham is a solid player. He not only registered 84 tackles last year but he led Vandy with seven sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss.
  • Mike Marry, Ole Miss: He's a fierce competitor and worker for the Rebels. He's become a true leader with both his words and play, coming away with 78 tackles, including 10.5 for loss last year.
  • Curt Maggit, Tennessee: He's another player who is versatile to play both inside and outside. He's coming off an ACL injury but should be ready to go this fall.
  • Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State: The redshirt sophomore was extremely busy during his first year on the field in 2012, collecting 102 tackles. He should be looked at as one of the top inside linebackers in the SEC this fall.
  • Andrew Wilson, Missouri: The old man of Mizzou's linebacking corps has a ton of experience -- and tackles -- under his belt. He can make plays against the run and the pass.

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.”

(Read full post)

Video: Ole Miss LB Mike Marry

April, 5, 2013
4/05/13
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Ole Miss linebacker Mike Marry discusses the next steps that need to be taken for the Rebels' defense in 2013.

Thanks to 24-point first half and commanding performance by its defense throughout the afternoon, Ole Miss captured its first bowl victory since 2009 with a 38-17 win over Pittsburgh in front of a sea of red that was a part of a record crowd of 59,135 for the BBVA Compass Bowl.

The SEC improved to 5-3 in bowl games, while the Big East ends bowl play with a 3-2 record.

It was over when: Ole Miss back up quarterback Barry Brunetti pushed forward on a quarterback keeper for a 1-yard touchdown to make it 31-10 Rebels with 21 seconds remaining in the third quarter.

Game ball goes to: First-year coach Hugh Freeze. He didn't throw any passes or make any tackles, but he had his players very ready for Saturday's bowl game. This game meant a lot to players and fans, and the Rebels came out fast on offense and hunkered down on defense. After missing out on a bowl game the last two seasons, and winning just six total games during that span, Ole Miss finished the year 7-6 after a major culture overhaul thanks to Freeze's guidance.

Stat of the game: Ole Miss held the rushing advantage over Pittsburgh 222-81.

Stat of the game II: Pittsburgh defenders Jason Hendricks and Shayne Hale combined for 30 tackles and 21 of those tackles were solo.

Best call: All year, Freeze rotated his quarterbacks throughout games. Bo Wallace was always the starter but Brunetti would come in for obvious running plays. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it was a little too obvious, but it certainly worked on Saturday. Wallace finished the game with 151 passing yards and three touchdowns to two interceptions on 22 of 32 passing. He also ran for 27 yards, while Brunetti totaled 34 yards, but helped really open up a running game that finished with 222 yards and 4.6 yards per carry.

Unsung heroes of the game: Running back Jeff Scott left the game early with a hamstring injury, leaving freshman Jaylen Walton to help carry the load. He kept the chains moving for the Rebels, carrying the ball 10 times for 56 yards. He averaged 5.6 yards per carry in the process. Linebacker Mike Marry has been one of the most underrated players in the SEC this year and he had a very productive day. He was all over Pitt's backfield, registering four tackles for loss. He finished the day with seven total tackles, a sack and a forced fumble.

What Ole Miss learned: This team brought a lot of fight to Birmingham, Ala. When Scott went down with his hamstring injury, there had to be some concern on that Ole Miss sideline that the Rebels' offense might lose some of its rhythm. It didn't. The Rebels continued to work the ground game with other options and just wore down the Panthers up front. That running game helped open up the passing game and helped the Rebels enter the offseason with a ton of momentum after this win.

What Pitt learned: It had no offense without star senior running back Ray Graham. He had a heck of a career with the Panthers, but a hamstring injury kept him out of the BBVA Compass Bowl, and the Panthers just couldn't replace his production on the field. Pitt ran the ball 36 times for 81 yards, averaging just 2.3 yards per carry. Rushel Shell replaced Graham, rushing for 79 yards on 25 carries. That lack of a running game severely limited the Panthers through the air as well, as quarterback Tino Sunseri passed for just 185 yards.

Opening preseason camp: Ole Miss

August, 3, 2012
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Schedule: The Rebels’ first practice is Saturday at 10:45 a.m. ET. The first day in pads is scheduled for next Wednesday. Ole Miss opens the season on Sept. 1 against Central Arkansas in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Kickoff is 7 p.m. ET, and the game will be televised on a pay-per-view basis and also shown on ESPN3.

Returning starters: Seven on offense, six on defense and the place-kicker, punter and top return man on special teams.

Star power: Junior Mike Marry is the returning starter at middle linebacker. He led the team with 81 total tackles and five tackles for loss last season.

New faces: Several junior college newcomers could wind up with starting jobs this fall. Among them are quarterback Bo Wallace, offensive tackle Pierce Burton and cornerback Dehendret Collins. All three were on campus for spring practice. The Rebels are thin at running back behind junior Jeff Scott, and that’s where they hope true freshmen I’Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton will be able to help. In the secondary, true freshman Trae Elston comes in as one of the top-rated safety prospects in the country. Another highly-rated true freshman, defensive end, Channing Ward, could help fill a big void on the Rebels’ defensive line.

Don’t forget about: Junior linebacker D.T. Shackelford is trying to make it back from two knee surgeries after not playing at all last season. He can play outside linebacker and also line up as a defensive end on passing downs. Shackelford is one of the strongest leaders on the team, and getting him back on the field this fall would pay huge dividends for the Rebels.

Big shoes to fill: The Rebels lost both of their starting tackles on offense. Between them, Bradley Sowell and Bobby Massie started in 58 straight games. Sowell graduated, and Massie left early for the NFL draft. Junior Emmanuel McCray steps in at left tackle and Burton at right tackle. Knee injuries cost McCray the entire 2011 season, but he was one of the Rebels’ most pleasant surprises in the spring and latched onto the left tackle job. Burton started his career as a defensive lineman, but developed into a top-notch offensive tackle at City College of San Francisco. Ole Miss beat Florida to get him.

Key battle: First-year coach Hugh Freeze wasn’t ready to name a starting quarterback coming out of the spring and said the battle between Wallace and junior Barry Brunetti could go well into preseason camp and maybe into the first few weeks of the season. Wallace has the bigger arm and is a polished pocket passer, while Brunetti is comfortable throwing on the move and seemed to thrive in Freeze’s fast-paced, spread system this spring.

Rising star: Some might suggest that sophomore Donte Moncrief is already the star of this team. He led Ole Miss in receiving as a true freshman last season with 31 catches for 454 yards and four touchdowns. He averaged 14.6 yards per catch. The best news for the Rebels is that Moncrief is only going to get better, especially if Ole Miss can stabilize its play at quarterback.

Bottom line: The Rebels have lost 14 straight SEC games. Only once last season did they play an SEC opponent inside double digits. It’s going to be a steep climb for Freeze, especially in the Western Division where he’s dealing with three top-10 teams nationally. He’s gotten off to a nice start on the recruiting trail, and that’s what it’s going to take. A big part of Houston Nutt’s undoing at Ole Miss can be traced to his first couple of years when he missed more than he hit on the recruiting front. Freeze has an impressive nucleus of young talent to build around -- C.J. Johnson, Serderius Bryant, Moncrief, Wallace, Elston and Ward -- but it’s going to take two more solid recruiting classes to catch up with the teams he has to beat in the West. The big thing this program needs is some confidence. The Rebels ended last season on a seven-game losing streak. They need to play well in those first two games against Central Arkansas and UTEP and then go into that Texas game at home with some real momentum. Getting to a bowl game might be a stretch in Freeze’s debut season, but the Rebels are a united bunch right now and looking forward to taking their shot with a fresh approach.
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.

[+] EnlargeHugh Freeze
Shelby Daniel/Icon SMINew coach Hugh Freeze has set out an agenda for all Ole Miss players: "winning the day."
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.

Top performer: Tackles

May, 14, 2012
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Our look at the SEC's most productive returning players in 2012 continues with a look at the top tacklers.

Past producers:
The SEC returns three of the top 10 tacklers from 2011, but don't let that fool you. There's still a lot of quality out there on those SEC defenses. Last season's tackling king, Kentucky linebacker Danny Trevathan, is gone, and so are his 143 tackles. But the league's No. 2 tackler is back.

Here's a look at the top tackler returning in the SEC:

Cameron Lawrence, LB, Mississippi State: He was second in the SEC with 123 tackles and had 50 solo stops. He also averaged 9.5 tackles per game. The 6-foot-3, 230-pounder found ways to take down opposing offensive players by roaming all over the field for the Bulldogs. Lawrence started on the outside, but made his presence known on many different areas of the field with his speed and relentless attitude. Lawrence picked up right were he left off this spring, and the coaches expect him to be just as valuable this fall. It'll be tough to stop Lawrence from taking the tackling crown in 2012.

The SEC returns two more of its top tacklers:
  • Daren Bates, LB, Auburn: He registered 104 tackles, including 59 solo, and averaged eight tackles a game.
  • Jonathan Bostic, LB, Florida: He registered 94 tackles, including 60 solo, and averaged 7.2 tackles a game.

Those three will certainly get their chances to fight for the crown, but there are other players to keep an eye on as well this fall. Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are gone at Alabama, but that means Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley will have the chance to take some of that lost production.

Missouri linebacker Andrew Wilson was a stud last season with his team-high 98 tackles, so he'll definitely be in the race this season. So will South Carolina's Devonte Holloman, as he moves back to the Spur position that he lost last season to Antonio Allen, who led the Gamecocks in tackles. Georgia's Jarvis Jones will also take a crack at it. He was the best when it came to making plays behind the line of scrimmage last season, but you better believe offenses will look to protect the backfield more against him. That means he'll have more opportunities to make plays past the line, and he's just as deadly when he isn't rushing the passer.

Ole Miss linebacker Mike Marry had a solid season in 2011, accumulating 81 total tackles. He's turned into a better player, and with the Rebels lining up in all sorts of different defensive formations, he'll be moving all around the field to make plays. Also, keep tabs on Arkansas linebacker Alonzo Highsmith and defensive end/linebacker Tenarius Wright. Highsmith had a tremendous 2011 season, racking up 80 tackles, and with the team's top tacklers gone, expect his production to increase. And if Wright stays at linebacker, he'll have more opportunities to add to his tackling numbers.

Two other players to watch out for are Texas A&M linebacker Jonathan Stewart and Vanderbilt linebacker Chase Garnham. Stewart led the Aggies with 98 tackles last season, and Garnham moves into Chris Marve's spot in the middle. A spot where Marve registered a team-high 91 tackles.
OXFORD, Miss. -- There were a lot of changes in and around Ole Miss' football program this spring.

New coach Hugh Freeze was brought in, and with him came a slew of new assistants and schemes. Some have been easier to deal with than others.

For rising junior linebacker Mike Marry, he welcomed all of that change with open arms. It wasn't always easy, but as Marry, who led Ole Miss with 81 tackles, embarks on the offseason he does so with a better outlook on his team, especially the defense.

[+] EnlargeMike Marry
Spruce Derden/US PresswireLB Mike Marry says he's confident the Rebels' defense will be a much-improved unit in 2012.
The Rebels ranked last in the SEC in total defense last year, but Marry said he's excited about this group because of the multiple formations new defensive coordinator Dave Wommack is running. Marry said it'll make Ole Miss' defense tougher to figure out and it allows players to play with more freedom and have more fun on the field.

Marry took time away from hitting the weights to speak with ESPN.com about the spring and changing the culture at Ole Miss.

Edward Aschoff: With a new defensive coordinator and some new coaches in, how did the defense respond and where is it now compared to where it was at the beginning of the spring?

Mike Marry: I feel like at the beginning it was hard for some of us to pick up the schemes and we were playing kind of slow. As practice went on, we had more and more meetings and things started progressing. We started flying around as a D and started connecting and being able to help each other and that's what made things easier and practice more fun.

What was difficult about the new schemes at first?

We're doing a lot of different things and you're never in the same spot. Even if you're running the same play you never line up in the same spot and it was kind of difficult for some of us to move around and do our responsibilities. Once we started picking that up, things became a lot easier.

How much does that help you as a defender when you have to move around so much and play in a lot of different formations?

It helps you a lot because the offense can never predict what defense you're in by where you line up because we line up in all kinds of places and run the same defense. They'll just never know.

For you, what's different? Where are you now compared to where you were last year after stepping into a pretty big role before the season?

As I get older, I have more responsibility to help the younger guys. Last year, I had people over me that were already here and they were able to help me. Now, I'm kind of one of the oldest ones on the team, even though I'm about to be junior. I have to help these younger guys come along.

What have you done to make sure that you step up and lead those younger guys?

We do extra drills after practice or we watch film without the coaches. We just go in and watch film because some players find it easier to talk to older players rather than the coach. If they have a question they'll ask me and if I don't know it I'll ask the coaches and get back to them.

What did you try to improve in your individual game this spring?

Running to the ball. That's one of the main things coach [Freeze] said I needed to improve on from last year. On deep passes, I need to chase the ball even if I can't get there. You never know what's going to happen. If I run to the ball I might get a lucky play and get a fumble or something like that.

Is that something that has been missing on this defense?

I feel like we were missing that last year. There would be a couple games where teams would get a big play you could see the offense and the defense put their heads down and we weren't trying as hard anymore and that's what lost us a lot of games. Even the games that we started off winning, once they got a big play, we put our heads down and ended up letting them come back instead of fighting. Bad plays are going to happen every game. You can't just dwell on that. You have to keep moving for the next play.

Was something that you wanted to make clear to your teammates this spring that they have to keep going no matter the score this time?

Yes, sir. Like I said, we lost a lot of games because of that last year. One thing we have to do is we have to prove to the fans that we're not going to give up because when I first got here we went and won back-to-back Cotton Bowls and I feel like we've been letting down the fans because they put in a lot of time and effort into us, too. We have to play for ourselves and our families and the fans as well.

When you look at the team that you came in to and then you look at the 14 straight SEC losses, what do you think immediately about when it comes where this team was to where it is now in such a short amount of time?

We have a long way to go, but I feel like we have the weapons to get back to where we were, if not better. When I got here, there were a handful of players that dominated and were difference makers. I feel like we have a lot more difference makers now. Even though they're young, they play hard. That's going to get us back to where we were.

Video: Ole Miss linebacker Mike Marry

May, 10, 2012
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Ole Miss linebacker Mike Marry talks about defensive improvement with the Rebels and adapting to a new coaching staff and scheme.
South Carolina welcomed back a familiar face to wide receiver Tuesday when Bruce Ellington returned to the football practice field.

Earlier this month, Ellington announced that he was picking basketball over football, but shortly after the whispers began about him possibly returning to football after men's basketball coach Darrin Horn was fired.

Tuesday, Ellington worked out with the Gamecocks' football team for the first time this spring. Coincidentally, it was the same day in which Frank Martin was introduced as South Carolina's new men's basketball coach.

Coach Steve Spurrier had some very kinds words to say about Martin:
"I like Coach Frank Martin. I think his track record speaks for itself. The guy has only been a head coach for five years in college, but Frank Martin, in my opinion, knows how to coach ball. He’d be a heck of a football coach, too. I think our basketball program is in excellent hands. Like he said, we’re going to pack Colonial [Life] Arena. I believe him. I believe there will be 18,000 cheering the Gamecocks."

Ellington plans to continue being a two-sport athlete at South Carolina and Spurrier said Tuesday that he was "one of the fastest guys out there" at practice.

Having Ellington back certainly brings some needed experience back to the receiver position. Ellington made his mark as more of an all-purpose guy, but he'll be called on more to catch the ball this fall with Alshon Jeffery gone.

Kicker to the rescue
Vanderbilt's kicking issues from last season are well documented, but Tuesday, it was a kicker who saved the Commodores from extra, uncomfortable running after practice.

To close Tuesday's practice, coach James Franklin gave his kickers eight field goal attempts. Each kick was to be performed while Franklin messed with the kicker and "whispered sweet nothings" into his ears. For every miss the team had one gasser (a football player's nightmare). Vandy's kickers missed four, meaning four gassers for the team.

But Franklin decided to up the ante with a double or nothing call -- one kick to erase the gassers or force eight on his players. The team was supposed to choose a kicker it was confident in, but Carey Spear jumped right up and volunteered.

"Carey's one of the more competitive guys that we got," Franklin said.

"He's a very, very competitive, tough guy."

Spear stepped up and nailed a 40-yard kick to save his team from eight painful gassers.

"It was a pretty good risk that they were taking and they believed in him, so it was good," Franklin said.

Freeze unhappy with effort
Ole Miss dressed in pads for the second time this spring, but new coach Hugh Freeze wasn't too thrilled with the effort his players showed Tuesday.

“[I was] disappointed,” Freeze said. “I didn’t think the attitude was bad, but I thought the effort was half-hearted. I thought we coasted through a lot of practice. We’re asking a lot of them to lift [weights] and practice, sometimes on the same days. And of course, academics are a priority. We’ll point [the lack of effort] out on film [Wednesday], and we’ll stop practice on Thursday if we have to in order to get it right. We won’t go through two days of that in a row.”

As Freeze looks to install a new, more spread offense at Ole Miss, he's finding that one of the key components needs to improve more as the spring continues. That component is the running game, which isn't just essential to the spread, but is essential to having a successful offense in the SEC.

“There were some good plays, though. In the team run, we broke a few long ones," Freeze said.

"But we’re still very inconsistent.”

Two players sat out practice Tuesday with injuries. Sophomore defensive lineman Bryon Bennett (foot) and junior linebacker Mike Marry (hamstring) are both day-to-day.

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