Oxford, Miss.—In February of 2013 Ole Miss signed a recruiting class that, on paper, was the best in school history. There were 11 high school All-Americans in that group including the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit (DT Robert Nkemdiche), the nation’s No. 1 offensive tackle (Laremy Tunsil), the nation’s No. 1 receiver (Laquon Treadwell), and the nation’s No. 2 safety (Tony Conner).
In the past two seasons that class has won 17 games. The 2014 team earned a top five ranking, beat No. 1 Alabama (23-17), beat Mississippi State (which was ranked No. 1 for five weeks), and earned a trip to a New Year’s Six bowl.
Right now 13 members of that recruiting class can be found on the Ole Miss depth chart. Given the way the world works, it is reasonable to assume that a number of the more high-profile juniors will not be returning for their fourth year in Oxford.
So when I visited head Coach Hugh Freeze in his office earlier this week, my question was a simple one: Given the probability that a number of these guys are playing their last season at Ole Miss, is there a greater sense of urgency to make 2015 a special season?
Freeze, set to begin his fourth season at Ole Miss, had anticipated the question.
“It is a fair question if you’re somebody who lives their life outside-in,” said Freeze. “But we are trying here to live our lives inside-out.”
The sportswriter looked confused and so Freeze explained. And here it is in a nutshell:
The person who lives “outside-in,” said Freeze, takes the external expectations and pressures from others and tries to live his or her life to meet them.
The person who lives “inside-out” bases his behaviors on his own expectations and values.
“If you live outside-in then emotions and circumstances from other people dictate how you will respond to things,” he said. “When you live inside-out then I’m defined by who I am at the core.”
“There should be a sense of urgency in everything I do,” said Freeze. “But is there a sense of urgency to ‘win now, win now, win now?’ I can’t operate that way.”
It is a message that has been delivered loud and clear to the Ole Miss players.
“There is always a sense of urgency in everything we do,” said Evan Engram, a junior tight end from Powder Springs, Ga. “But it’s not because of who is or who is not going to be here next season. There is a sense of urgency because of how hard we’ve been working and the goals we set for ourselves. It’s not about what others think of us or think we should accomplish. We want to be in Atlanta for the SEC championship and then earn a spot in the playoffs. We want nothing less.”
If Ole Miss could have a little luck on the injury front, the pieces seem to be in place for a run at the SEC West title.
Treadwell, who has 120 career catches for 1,240 yards, appears to have fully recovered from a horrific injury to his leg and ankle suffered in the eighth game against Auburn. It knocked Treadwell out for the rest of the season and pretty much ended the Rebels’ hopes of winning the division. It was a devastating blow.
Treadwell, who can now run at full speed but has had very limited contact in the preseason, said the highs and lows of last season have only made this team stronger.
“We are now a very mature team,” said Treadwell. “We push each other in practice now because we know that is what it is going to take. Our class came here to make a difference. And so far we’ve done that. Now we want to do more.”
A year ago the Ole Miss defense gave up an average of 13.8 points in 12 regular season games. Even after a 42-3 loss to TCU in the Peach Bowl, the Rebels still led the nation scoring defense at 16.0 points per game.
“And we just want to get better,” said Conner, an All-SEC second team pick by the media in the preseason. “We are talking to each other a lot. The sense of urgency is to get better.”
Besides the quarterback competition, which is still involves Ryan Buchanan, DeVante Kincaid, and JUCO transfer Chad Kelly (nephew of Jim), there are a couple of things to watch with the Ole Miss offense.
Freeze says he wants to—really needs to—run the ball better. Last season the Rebels were 10th in the SEC in rushing at 155.5 yards per game. So he is expecting more out of senior Jaylen Walton (586 rushing) and sophomore Jordan Wilkins (361 rushing). Akeem Judd, who redshirted last season after signing out of Georgia Military College, has looked good in practice and is expected to bring a more physical element the running game.
Freeze also told me that after a season of slowing things down, he’s returning to the up tempo that he originally brought from Arkansas State, especially in the run game.
Freeze’s biggest concern less than three weeks from the opener is how hard to push this team because injuries were such a problem in 2014.
“I’m struggling a bit because I finally have a team that is somewhat mature,” said Freeze. “In my mind I just want to get the guys to the bus and get them to the game. But we had our first live scrimmage the other day and we tackled awful. So it’s a balancing act. I want them to be healthy for the game. But I want them to be prepared. It’s tough.”
Ole Miss will tune up with two early games against UT Martin and Fresno State in Oxford. Then comes the rematch with Alabama on Sept. 19 in Tuscaloosa. A year ago Freeze got his first signature victory when the Rebels knocked off the Crimson Tide 23-17 with ESPN’s College Game Day making its first trip to Oxford.
The schedule has Vanderbilt, Texas A&M, Arkansas, and LSU at home with Alabama, Florida, Auburn, and Mississippi State on the road. There will be pressure, both internal and external. That is the nature of playing college football at this level.
Freeze says this team is mature enough to handle it.
“I saw a sign in Twitter that said ‘Now Is The Time.’ I didn’t like it at all,” said Freeze. “Every year is the time to go compete. Every moment is the time. The fact is that this (the success Ole Miss has had) is the new normal. We’ve arrived and we’re not going away.”
Next stop: Mississippi State