State of the Program

Near the end of the regular football season, we sat down with Rebel Coach Hugh Freeze for a "State of the Program" chat. The following were the results of our candid conversation.

Ole Miss Coach Hugh Freeze has some common themes he has steadfastly preached since taking over the Rebel football program roughly two years ago.

Building the program the right way will be a process and a long journey only accomplished by winning every day in everything done.

There are many layers and moving parts to running any college sports program. Each demands a lot of attention and care.

We sat down with Freeze late in the regular season and got his thoughts on each facet of his program. Where it was, where it is and where it is headed. While there were some specifics he prefers to keep in house, Freeze was relatively candid and open in his off-the-cuff evaluation.

Freeze was quick to point out that while he is upbeat about the progress made and his evaluation is mostly positive, "we will continually raise the bar and try to achieve better in every phase of the program. We can keep doing better in every facet."

This article was first published in The Ole Miss Spirit magazine, but we felt it was worth a read for subscribers who do not get the monthly mag.

Administration

With back-to-back bowl appearances and improving by one game over last year's production, Athletics Director Ross Bjork – for the second year in a row – initiated a competitive bump in the salaries of Freeze and his staff. While the Rebel staff is still "middle of the pack" in their compensation package, Bjork's good-faith action was the right move.

The Ole Miss administration is also the process of facility renovations and building. The Manning Center has had a total overhaul/addition with a new locker room, nutrition center, a recruiting area, weight room expansion, new team meeting room and new head coach office, all state of the art.

"I appreciate the support we have gotten from Chancellor (Dan) Jones and Athletics Director Ross Bjork. They have a vision for Ole Miss athletics and Rebel football that gives us an opportunity to succeed in the best conference in America," said Freeze. "This is a tough, tough conference and they understand for this university to be successful competing in it that we have to have tools that are competitive with the rest of the teams in the SEC. They are doing everything in their power to provide us with those tools.

"The Manning Center will be as good as any facility in America when it's finished and the plans for the expansion of Vaught-Hemingway will really enhance our stadium. All these things will not only help in recruiting, but it will motivate everyone in that building every day."

Staff:

When Freeze was named the head coach at Ole Miss, he was loyal to some coaches who had been with him on his journey to SEC head man. Some of them didn't have any experience on this level and Freeze was questioned about some of his personnel decisions.

Freeze did not back up from his choices and, as it turns out so far, they were wise ones.

"Even though I had full faith in the football knowledge of the guys I hired as assistant coaches, hiring a staff is not just about X's and O's," he noted. "Although that is obviously important, I also wanted people who work well together, who are loyal, who are driven, who understand the importance and have a love of recruiting, who know how to deal with young people and who have the same core values I have.

"Every coach I hired, I trust to do things the right way and I can say without reservation after two years, I am pleased with all of them. I hope we can stay together for a long time. We are a family."

Administratively, Hugh has also put together a staff he is comfortable with and reliant on.

"John Miller, our director of football operations, Tom Luke, Barney Farrar, Brandon Wenzel, Megan McCurdy, Lee Wilbanks, Carli Jo Cain, and Alicia VanLandeghem all carry a big load and do things professionally that represents our program the way I want it represented. Also, our film guys – Andy Commer and Chris Buttgen – do a great job for us. I lean on them a lot and appreciate the work they do."

Strength & Conditioning:

Paul Jackson heads up the all-important strength and conditioning, one of the most vital components to any athletic program.

In an up-tempo system, conditioning is vital, but there also has to be a balance of strength and speed training in order to keep up with the Joneses in the SEC.


Hugh Freeze
File Photo

Freeze believes Jackson is in the elite of his profession and has assembled a staff that is as dedicated as Paul is.

"If you will recall, I really took my time in deciding on a strength coach because I understand the importance of that part of the program," noted Freeze. "We were blessed to have some very good candidates who wanted this job, but I knew Paul was the right fit for us.

"He is a stud. Our team is well-conditioned and capable of playing the tempo football we want to play and I can tell a difference in the body makeup of our players from month to month. Our freshman class already looks much, much better – overall – then when they came in here and I give Paul and his staff all the credit."

Roster Evaluation:

When coaches are building a program, one important area that has to be addressed is the "balance" of a roster.

With 85 scholarships available, a determination of how many players needed at each position is critical. Freeze inherited a squad without proper balance, lacking in some areas and overloaded in others.

"We are out of whack in some areas right now – not enough in a couple of spots, too many in a couple of others," he continued. "We are in a position where we are graduating a lot of offensive linemen this year and a lot of defensive linemen next year.

"We most likely are going to have to rely on JUCO players to balance some things out and we are going to have to think outside the box on some redshirt decisions. We may have to redshirt two or three guys who have been playing substantial minutes the past two years to help balance things out."

Freeze admits no roster is ever perfect and it takes time to achieve the type of balance needed and wanted, but gaining the proper balance is something his staff juggles daily in their ongoing evaluations of individuals, positions and the entire squad.

"Last year was a prime example. At one point, we had two tailbacks and six offensive linemen we really felt comfortable with. Also, all three of our tight ends graduated. We went heavy on backs and offensive linemen our first two years to try to balance things out," he noted. "I expect we'll be doing more of that for the time being."

Player Accountability:

It's well-documented that when Freeze took over the team was in disarray from a behavioral and discipline standpoint.

There wasn't an overnight cure. It was another area that had to be attacked each day, methodically. Another facet of the "Win The Day" mantra.

"The accountability on the team is getting better," Freeze stated. "It's not where I want it to be yet. The majority of our players are trying to do things the right way, and are doing so successfully, but we've still got to get some little things ironed out.

"The message we have sent them is that we are not afraid to discipline. I believe we have consistently sent that message with some game suspensions when they stubbed their toe even though it could have hurt us in those particular games. We have dismissed a few players as well. That's a hard thing to do, but we have to look at the good of the whole team when a young man refuses to comply to our standards."

While Freeze understands he could take an immediate hit, he knows in the long run it will help the team.

"The big picture, the long haul, is what we are concentrating on in discipline and accountability," he added. "I am going to take a stand and get it right. In the long run, it will make our team stronger. If we have to sacrifice some things right now to get the message across, so be it."

Academics:

Another area that was a known train wreck when Freeze and his staff came on board was the overall academic standing of the squad.

Again, there is no quick fix.

The team registered an APR of 968 in Freeze's first full year. That's very good with a 930 average being the low end before penalties are levied.

But the problem facing Freeze is what he inherited.

"We've got a 919 year that just rotated on to our four-year rolling average," he noted. "That means to overcome that we have to stay at 950 or above to keep a 930 or above average. That's a tall order, but something we are determined and focused to do," Freeze assessed.

Freeze said he has faith in the academic support staff.

"Our players are in good hands with our academic support staff and we keep constant tabs on class absences, grades and everything else related to academics," he said. "I feel we are going in the right direction there, but we've still got a lot of work to do in that area."

Health Care:

Another vital aspect of any football program is the health care they receive.

It goes without saying, football is a brutal sport and it's critical to a program's success for players to get the proper care when sick or injured.


Hugh Freeze
File Photo

"I'm very happy with (Football Trainer) Pat (Jernigan) and his staff. He's a good fit with us and he pushes the kids in rehab to get well in order to get back on the field," Freeze stated. "I like the way he attacks things. The best interest of the players is always number one and that's how I want it.

"The doctors in town who work closely with our team are also thorough and quality physicians. I believe our players get excellent care when the need arises."

Recruiting:

In his first full year, Freeze and his staff reeled in a Top 10 recruiting class with several five-star players who were listed by all recruiting services as number one in the nation at their position.

So far this year, the commitment list is impressive and several more top-rated prospects are seriously considering Ole Miss.

It's a testament to the priority recruiting takes with Freeze, work ethic and the never-ending recruiting plan.

"We have done better nationally than I thought we would coming in here. I think we do the most with the manpower we have," Freeze evaluated. "Recruiting is daily. It never stops, and our staff has that mindset. That mindset has paid off for us to this point, but you can never take anything for granted or rest on your laurels.

"I feel we have our guys in the right places. We've tweaked things since we got here to hit Texas and Atlanta harder and to back out of South Florida a little bit. We will constantly tweak things in that regard though."

Freeze is content, for lack of a better word, with the relationships his staff has built in just two years in Mississippi, regionally and nationally.

"We had some great connections last year with some of the top-rated players in the nation and those connections paid off. This year, we are concentrating more in-state and I think the relationships we have with coaches and families in our state will pay off again," he noted.

Offensive/Defensive Systems:

"These constantly evolve, but I think we've proven in our time here that our base systems work in the SEC," Freeze said. "I feel we make good adjustments, I believe the tempo offense fits with the type of players we see in our state and I believe players love to play in both our offensive and defensive systems."

Freeze points to on-the-field improvement – overall - to back up his statement. He laments the offensive lull at the end of the regular season, but feels he and his staff can correct those issues.

"We are up in production offensively overall from last year and our defense is in the top half of the SEC. It was disappointing the way we performed offensively in the last two regular season games, but we will analyze all of that and figure out a way to get it fixed," he said. "The things we are constantly attacking and trying to improve are staying on schedule, Red Zone production and short yardage situations on offense and I want to see us improve on third downs on defense.

"I believe in our systems and I believe in the ability of our coaches to come up with good plans week-in and week-out. The key to all of this is to keep evolving. Our staff is not afraid to think outside the box and try things as long as they are fundamentally sound and within the framework of our systems."

Freeze said it is also important to be able to relay and teach things conceptually to players.

"It doesn't do any good to install things your players don't grasp. I think we have a good handle on that as well," he added. "It takes time for players to absorb concepts of an offense or defense, but I think we have made great strides in that area."

Media Relations/Social Media:

"It is very important to get our message and our brand out there via the media and via social media," Freeze noted. "That is an arena I am very comfortable in.

"I think it is also important that we have people in our program and in the athletic department who put out quality media products. I believe ‘The Season' is the best show in college football, for instance, and having those quality messages is a very important aspect of building a program."

Fan Support:

"I could not be happier with the way Rebel Nation has opened its arms to what we are trying to do at The Flagship University of Mississippi," Freeze said. "I can't tell you how important fan support is. It sets the tone for everything we are trying to accomplish.

"With our fan base in our corner, as they have been from day one, we can reach our common goals as a staff and as a fan base. I asked at the start of this season for our fans to stay positive and to have high, but realistic, expectations. Our fans have done exactly what I have asked and I am appreciative of that."

Overall:

This brings us back to the journey. The process. The big picture.

From Freeze's standpoint, the road is long and winding, but he and his staff are further down that road than he had anticipated at this juncture.

"I think we are ahead of schedule," he closed, "but I say that cautiously. I've said it a thousand times, and I'll keep saying it – to get things the way we envision them and want them will take a lot more hard work.

"The SEC is the top of the ladder. Everyone wants to move into that elite grouping of the SEC and everyone is working hard to get there. In my mind, we are taking the right steps to get there and have seen results, but we've got a long way to go. That's why it is so important for us to stay with the plan and win the day. That's also why it's important for our supporters to be proud Ole Miss supporters. Wear your Ole Miss clothes, talk positively about your university and football team. Understand where we are in this journey – how far we have come and how far we have to go. Help us get where we all want to be."


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