OXFORD, Miss. -- Hugh Freeze tried his best to strike a tone of optimism in a Tuesday afternoon news conference. The defiance in his voice had long since left the 47-year-old coach of Ole Miss and a somber reality seemed to have set in one week after the university received a new NCAA notice of allegations and announced a self-imposed one-year bowl ban.
Of the eight new charges brought by the NCAA, the only one Freeze seemed intent to fight vigorously was that of his own failure to monitor. It was the most damning of 21 charges dating back to 2012, and that charge is the one that’s most likely to result in punitive punishment if he can’t persuade the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions to reduce or eliminate it at a hearing likely to come this summer.
Still, Freeze insisted that he wasn’t worried about his job security, that his administrators had watched him closely over the last five years and their support was unwavering. He wouldn’t let the thought of a suspension even enter his mind, he said.
At a gathering of reporters in the Manning Center on campus, he appeared relieved to be moving on to the next step of the process.
“I’m grateful that the investigative part of the NCAA case is over,” he said. “We can now move forward.”
But move forward to what? That, ultimately, is the overarching question facing Ole Miss this season. Because there are distractions and then there is this: 15 alleged level-one infractions, a head coach squarely on the hot seat and no possibility of playing in the postseason.
You wouldn’t have known it by the tone of the news conference, but Freeze’s stated purpose for being there wasn’t to talk about the NCAA. Tuesday, you see, was the start of spring practice.
“Now it’s time to turn our focus to football,” Freeze said.
Everyone heard, but very few listened. The cloud of the NCAA investigation is just too dense for anything else to exist in Oxford these days.
Last week, Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy told a Tulsa World columnist that he thought his team was on an unfair playing field when it lost to Ole Miss in the Sugar Bowl. Freeze, when asked about the quote, tried to offer no comment, then grinned and said, “Maybe we can meet in another Sugar Bowl and see how that goes.”
It was a clever response in any other circumstance, but one that ultimately missed the mark because no matter if Ole Miss goes 12-0 or 7-5 next season, there is no possibility at reaching the Sugar Bowl or any other kind of bowl game.
And make no mistake, this team has a chance to be quite good.
In three games as a freshman, Shea Patterson proved to be one of the most electrifying young quarterbacks in college football, leading a come-from-behind win at Texas A&M. Star freshman offensive tackle Greg Little is back, along with veterans Javon Patterson and Jordan Sims. And at receiver, the tandem of Van Jefferson and A.J. Brown is enough to make any defensive backs coach get a headache.
On defense, Marquis Haynes returns as one of the country’s premier pass-rushers alongside another standout freshman in defensive tackle Benito Jones. Freshmen All-SEC defensive backs Jaylon Jones and Myles Hartsfield are back after combining for 69 tackles last season as well.
There could be a problems with continuity. Not only does Ole Miss ranks 103rd in Phil Steele’s index of returning starters, it has almost an entirely new coaching staff around Freeze. At offensive coordinator is former Sam Houston State offensive coordinator Phil Longo, and former assistant coach Wesley McGriff has returned to become a defensive coordinator at the FBS level for the first time in his career.
Freeze, for his part, seemed to understand that this could be a spring practice full of growing pains.
“It will be ugly, offensively, I’m sure for the first week or so,” he said.
But regardless of how well Patterson or Haynes or Little performs, the questions surrounding the NCAA inquiry into the program aren’t going away.
Freeze said he has been “blown away” by the players’ response to the news he labeled a result of something that “almost none of them had anything to do with.” The best thing his team can do, he said, is make the most of the 12 regular-season games they’ll play this year.
It’s a tall order to set aside the distractions and focus on X’s and O’s. But that’s what Freeze is asking them to do — to come together in a difficult time.
If you follow the official Ole Miss football Twitter account, then you’ve noticed a new hashtag of late: #RebelsUnite.
But with Freeze potentially on the chopping block and the possibility of further punishment from the NCAA, you have to wonder what they’re uniting for.
And figuring that out this spring might be more important than anything that happens on the field.
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