Hugh Freeze, 22-11 with the Rebels, was hired at Ole Miss in December, 2011, as the program was at its lowest ebb in decades. The team of 2011 under former head coach Houston Nutt was 2-10.
It was the first time Ole Miss had won as few as two games in a season since 1946, and it was the first time ever for an Ole Miss football team to lose 10 games in one season.
“He’s a father figure to everybody on this team,” said Engram, the sophomore tight end brought in by Freeze and staff. “He really talks the talk and walks the walk. He’s a great coach. He holds us accountable. He’s tough on us. He puts in a lot of work for this university and the people around it. He cares about us a lot. He’s a really good coach, and we love him to death.”
Strong words from the heart of a well-spoken, genuine Engram. Those sentiments are echoed many times over by members of the current Rebel team, which is off to a 7-0 start overall and with a 4-0 mark in Southeastern Conference play.
The Rebels, with their best start since the 1962 season when they were a perfect 10-0 that year, travel to old foe LSU Saturday for a night game in Tiger Stadium. In 1962, Ole Miss was SEC champions, national champs, and defeated LSU in Baton Rouge 15-7.
The Rebels have had a lot of success in Tiger Stadium, also known as Death Valley, through the years. The last time down there in 2012, Ole Miss almost pulled off the upset, losing 41-35.
Ole Miss has the second most wins of any visiting team to play in Tiger Stadium at 24 victories, behind only Alabama which has 26 wins there.
In the overall series, LSU owns a 58-40-4 lead. The Tigers are the second-most played team for Ole Miss behind only Mississippi State. Ole Miss leads the series with MSU 61-43-6.
Engram said the Rebels are enjoying the success they are having this season, but they know for it to continue they must practice effectively daily and play well in the games.
He also said Freeze seems comfortable and confident with this year’s Rebel team. The entire team senses that.
“He’s a little more relaxed. You can kind of see it in practice,” Engram said. “But he definitely expects more of us every week. We’re 7-0 and with every win we’ve gotten this season, expectations have risen from him. He’s a lot more calm. But he definitely doesn’t want us to get complacent. He’s done a good job not letting that happen.”
That won’t be a problem again this week. The Tigers, all of a sudden, look like a championship caliber team. They were supposed to be this season anyway.
But after losing at Auburn 41-7 two weeks ago, many doubted. Now, with a 30-27 win at Florida and a 41-3 win over Kentucky at home their last two times out, the Tigers look more like themselves. Now they are 6-2 overall and 2-2 in conference action.
“I watched them earlier this year,” said Engram, who is the Rebels’ fourth-leading receiver this season with 19 catches for 292 yards and one touchdown. “Their defense has gotten hungrier. They were in a little slump earlier in the year. They’ve gotten their confidence up, and they’ll be ready to go. It’s going to be a tough battle.”
Engram looks forward to playing in Tiger Stadium. He’s familiar with the stories.
“I heard it’s crazy and it’s an environment that’s a special opportunity,” said the Powder Springs, Ga., product. “To go on the road and play this rivalry and the tradition this game holds, I know the stadium is going to be rocking and there’s going to be some crazy stuff the fans are going to be doing.”
Engram said that's all the more reason for the Rebels to stay the course and play as they have all season.
"Anytime it’s a rivalry, the teams are going to come out and play,” he said. “It’s the nature of the tradition that comes with it and the heat of the game. But we definitely have a goal in mind, and we’re going to have a good week of practice. We’re going to be there on Saturday fighting and executing so we can get a ‘W’ and keep working toward that goal of winning a national championship.”
Engram said it’s a lot of fun to play for a coaching staff who knows what they are doing and adjust to situations to help the team succeed.
“Anytime we have a chance to make big plays, we definitely get excited,” said the 6-foot-3, 227-pounder. “Our coaches are smart. They have a great gameplan, and they know what they’re doing. Our defense is out there playing their butts off. So definitely when our name is called to go make a big play or the coaches see something, or at halftime we see certain mismatches or certain looks, and a then we get a call to make a big play, it’s pretty big."
Engram said he has made progress in every way since his freshman season a year ago.
“I’m a lot more confident and a lot stronger,” he said. “I’m better and more mature at making decisions on what kind of block I’ve got to make. Technique-wise I’m dropping my feet and getting lower on the bigger D-Ends and bringing a little bit more pop on the bigger linebackers. Definitely my confidence level is raised. And from getting hurt last year I’m more aware not to put myself into position of getting hurt again.”
It’s Ole Miss-LSU week. Last season the Rebels knocked off the Tigers 27-24 in Oxford with a late-game Andrew Ritter field goal of 41 yards. Engram knows what this game means, not only as a rivalry but also as a game that has major national implications this season.
“It means a whole lot,” he said. “That (Magnolia Bowl) trophy over there means a lot to the university. We won it last year and we want to keep it here and win it more in the years to come. Last year was a huge game, and I’ll never forget it. We’re going to their place this time, and I’ve heard so many great stories about the environment. I can’t wait to get there.”
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