Breaking Down Ole Miss
By Freddie Vickers
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Ole Miss is hoping to bounce back from a 2-10 season in 2011 behind new coach Hugh Freeze.
Ole Miss will limp into the 2012 SEC football season off a 2011 season that saw the Rebels go 2-10 overall and 0-8 in conference play. Houston Nutt was subsequently fired, making room for Hugh Freeze from Arkansas State. Freeze takes over in Oxford after only one year as the head man in Jonesboro. Freeze joined the Arkansas State staff in 2010 as the offensive coordinator. In his only year as the OC, Freeze's offensive attack broke nine school records. In 2011, Freeze was appointed head coach and led Arkansas State to a 10-2 record. He was announced as the head coach at Ole Miss before the Red Wolves' bowl game.
Freeze returns to Oxford four years after he was an assistant coach under former head coach Ed Orgeron, and he now faces the tough task of putting Ole Miss football back on the map. The Rebels have lost 15 straight SEC games and three straight Egg Bowls to rival Mississippi State. While an assistant under Orgeron, Freeze was associated with an Ole Miss team that had an abundance of talent. Players like Michael Oher, Patrick Willis and Mike Wallace have all gone on to the National Football League. Freeze will have to remain patient, recruit like a wild man and get support from the Ole Miss administration if he is to turn the Rebels back into a contender. The Rebels are only three years removed from back to back Cotton Bowl appearances, so it can be done. Fortunately for Freeze, there is some talent. But much more will be needed to get Ole Miss back into SEC West contention.
The quarterback position was trimmed down during spring practice. Going into fall camp, it’s a two way battle between Bo Wallace and Barry Brunetti. Wallace is a transfer from Arkansas State, who also set records at East Mississippi Community College. Wallace had a nice showing during the Grove Bowl spring game, where he went 16 of 26 for 240 yards and two touchdowns. Brunetti started two games during the 2011 season and excelled early on in spring practice, but was definitely outshined by Wallace in the Rebel’s spring game. Both players bring some positives to the offense, as Wallace has a better understanding of the system, but Brunetti can make plays on the run and has the support of his teammates.
Jeff Scott returns to be the primary ball carrier for the Rebels after a 2011 season in which he led the team in rushing with 529 yards in only 10 games. True freshman I’Tavius Mathers should get the remainder of the carries in the Rebel backfield. Mathers rushed for 2,210 yards and 25 touchdowns during his senior season, which put him at over 5,500 yards for his high school career. At 6’0” and 195 pounds, Mathers may look the part of the more traditional running back compared to Scott, who’s 5’7” and only weighs in at 175 pounds.
The wide receiver position is a position of depth for Ole Miss, led by sophomore Donte Moncrief. Moncrief set a freshman record for receptions in 2011 (31), and also led the team in touchdowns (4) and receiving yards (454). Moncrief, along with junior Ja-Mes Logan, will give the Rebels two elite deep threats for Freeze’s spread offense attack. Randall Mackey, who started six games at quarterback for the Rebels in 2011, could be an x-factor on offense. Mackey has made the move to slot receiver and has established himself as one of the best athletes Ole Miss has with the ball in his hands. Look for Mackey to move around a lot and possibly even take snaps from the wildcat formation.
Unfortunately for Freeze, as deep as his receiving corp is, his offensive line just isn’t up to par for the SEC. Freeze will be looking to replace three starters, most notably right tackle Bobby Massie. Massie had been a staple at right tackle for the Rebels for quite some time. He has now moved on to the National Football League, where he was drafted in the fourth round by the Arizona Cardinals. Aaron Morris could be the next elite Ole Miss offensive lineman. At 6’5”, 325 pounds and possessing quick feet, the sophomore left guard will be called on to lead this Rebel offensive line. The offensive line is definitely the biggest question mark coming into the 2012 season. The entire line struggled in spring practice with the fast pace spread attack Freeze was trying to implement.
New defensive coordinator Dave Wommack definitely has his work cut out for him in 2012. He will be looking to revamp an Ole Miss defense that gave up 32.1 points and 419.3 yards per game. These numbers gave the Rebels a defense ranked last in the SEC and 90th nationally. Fortunately for Wommack, he does have seven starters returning and there is some talent. Wommack does have a couple of big time players on this defense that should help in making this defense compete at an SEC level.
Senior nose tackle Uriah Grant will be the leader of this young defensive line. The Rebels should start two sophomores and two seniors along the front four. An emerging star is sophomore defensive end C.J. Johnson. At 6’1”, 231 pounds, Johnson played in 11 games as a true freshman last fall and had 32 tackles, including four tackles for loss and one quarterback sack. Incoming four-star prospect Channing Ward should see immediate playing time as well for coach Wommack’s defense. Ward was the jewel of the 2012 Ole Miss recruiting class. At 6’4”, 250 pounds, Ward already has the body of an SEC defensive end, and although he will not likely be given a starting job, expect him to be in the fold and seeing playing time in week one versus Central Arkansas.
If you’re a college football fan, you have to love Ole Miss linebacker Mike Marry. Marry picks up the lunch pail and goes to work every single Saturday, as he showed in 2011 by leading the Rebels in tackles with 81. Marry wanted to drop some weight this offseason and he is now down to 248 pounds. This will help Wommack, as he will now be able to play Marry as a three down player at linebacker. Marry is now faster and will be an asset instead of a liability in pass coverage. Marry will be joined at linebacker by Aaron Garbutt and Brishen Matthews. Garbutt, a senior converted safety, will add much needed sideline to sideline speed and will help in pass coverage as well.
The best player on the Ole Miss defense resides in the secondary. Safety/corner Charles Sawyer has the ability to become an All-SEC type player. Sawyer intercepted a team high four passes in 2011. He is versatile, as he can play corner or safety. Along with Sawyer at safety, the Rebels have Chief Brown, who redshirted last season and should be ready to step in and make some quality contributions in the secondary. The corners give the Rebels a combination of speed and experience. Senior Wesley Pendleton has good size and speed and was the MVP of the defense during spring practice.
You would think that it wouldn’t be hard to improve on a 2-11 campaign for Ole Miss, but playing in the SEC West doesn’t make for any gimmes. Also, the Rebels have Texas coming to Oxford on September 15. Ole Miss should start the season 2-0 before having to take on Texas, in what will be a pivotal non-conference matchup. After Texas, the Rebels will travel to Tulane, in a game that will be a must win in order to gain some momentum heading to Tuscaloosa to face the defending BCS national champions, the Alabama Crimson Tide. The month of October doesn’t get any easier, as Texas A&M and Auburn come calling on Oxford, before finishing the month out with a trip to Fayetteville to take on the Arkansas Razorbacks. November opens with a trip between the hedges to face the Georgia Bulldogs, followed by a home game versus Vandy. Ole Miss will then hit the road on November 17, with a trip to Baton Rouge to take on the LSU Tigers before finally ending the season at home versus Mississippi State in the annual Egg Bowl.
Freeze and his 2012 Ole Miss Rebels must get out of the gate quick. They cannot afford a slip up versus Central Arkansas or UTEP. UTEP is the kind of football team that can get you if you’re not focused and are looking ahead to Texas the next week. Fully expect the Rebels to be up for Texas. This is a huge non-conference battle and it is a game, being in Oxford, that Ole Miss can definitely win. The Rebels definitely have the ability to improve on last year's 2-11 season, but must protect home field in order to do so. The main key on the offensive side of the football will be getting solid offensive line play. This makeshift group must be able to protect and play with the tempo at which Freeze wants to play. Also, the Rebels must solidify a starting quarterback, one that can put his high octane offense in a position to get the ball to the playmakers at wide receiver. On defense, the Rebels should definitely improve on last year's performance. Dave Wommack should have guys flying around in his 4-2-5 defense. Mike Marry will again carry the load and with Charles Sawyer leading the secondary, this Ole Miss team can definitely get to six wins in 2012.