The last few weeks have been, in a word, kind to Hugh Freeze.
The third-year Ole Miss head coach, who led the Rebels to a 9-3 (5-3 SEC) finish, closed the regular season with a win over in-state rival Mississippi State in the annual Egg Bowl rivalry game; flirted with Florida only to come to terms on a lucrative (his daughters are in for one merry Christmas) contract extension with Ole Miss; accepted an invitation to the playoff-tie-in Peach Bowl and was elected new mayor of Oxford.
OK, he wasn’t elected mayor. Got carried away there. But, I mean, if he ran, he’d win. In. A. Landslide.
However, with every additional win and additional dollar comes greater expectations and even tougher criticism. His contract numbers haven’t been officially released, but he’ll be paid an average annual value well north of $4 million. Yowza.
Naturally, every decision he makes from here on out, be it on the recruiting trail or on third-and-8 against Alabama in a three-point game, is going to be overanalyzed, hashed and rehashed. Part of the job.
Enter Chad Kelly.
Ole Miss picked up a commitment from the national-championship-winning East Mississippi Community College quarterback on Wednesday. Kelly, who has two years to play two, threw for 3,906 yards and 47 touchdowns for the No. 1 Lions last season. He added 446 yards and four scores on the ground.
“Bo Wallace, great quarterback, he’s leaving,” Kelly said of the senior Ole Miss signal-caller. “There’s an open quarterback competition. You’ve just got to go in and fight for the job. That’s going to be at every place no matter where you go.
“There’s some great quarterbacks at Ole Miss in Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade and even my friend Drew Davis. All those guys are great quarterbacks; that’s the reason they are there. I’m just going to go in and try to help the team as much as I can. It’s an open job. You’ve got to go and win it and show your talent.”
There’s no denying Kelly can help Ole Miss. As he said, Wallace, a former EMCC product himself, is leaving, and in limited playing-time opportunities, neither Buchanan nor Kincade have shown, at least not yet, that they’re ready to step in and take the reins of what has the potential to be a talent-rich Rebel offense. Kelly, meanwhile, hung 434 passing yards and five touchdowns on 40 completions in 53 attempts against No. 2 Iowa Western on Sunday.
Despite all the flak he catches, the tired “Good Bo”/”Bad Bo” narrative, the reality is Freeze and Co. have to replace a player in Wallace who holds the school record for total offensive yards and, with one game remaining, has a 24-14 record in three seasons under center. He’s racked up 10,427 total yards heading into the postseason, and should No. 9 Ole Miss take down No. 6 TCU in the Peach Bowl, he would become the first Rebel quarterback ever to start and win three bowl games.
The argument could be made Wallace – not Laquon Treadwell, Laremy Tunsil, Robert Nkemdiche, et al – is the most important signee of Freeze’s Ole Miss tenure. Without Wallace, the Rebels, who were 6-18 prior to his arrival, including a 15-game SEC losing streak, aren’t where they are today.
“There’s some great quarterbacks at Ole Miss. It’s an open job. You’ve got to go and win it and show your talent.”
Somewhat forgotten, however, is how hard it was for Freeze to land Wallace. He absolutely wanted to come to Ole Miss in the final months of 2011 and on into January of 2012, but the Rebels didn’t offer until very late in the process, shortly after Texas, Mississippi State and others started to show serious interest in him.
Freeze faced a tough call, but he made the right one. Wallace got his scholarship and the rest is history. We’re watching the same movie again three years later. The question, though, is what the ultimate outcome will be.
While Wallace had his share of off-the-field “troubles,” if we can really classify them as such, they pale in comparison to Kelly. His past ... err ... adventures are well-documented. The cliff notes version: Kelly was booted from Clemson after a number of incidents. The final straw was when he snapped at coaches during the Tigers’ spring game in April. Head coach Dabo Swinney said Kelly had shown “a pattern of behavior that is not consistent with the values of our program.” Off he went.
He’s saying all the right things now. He’s not trash-tweeting his soon-to-be teammates or making rap songs about how awesome he is. But like Freeze, Kelly currently has everything going for him. What happens when he faces adversity?
“I think if someone takes a step into Scooba, Mississippi, and sees what’s around and sees what’s there, it’s a very humbling experience,” Kelly said. “Coming from a bigger town and bigger City in Buffalo (N.Y.) and come to Scooba with only 700 people ... you try to get right back on track and focus.”
While it is true junior college quarterbacks and one-year grad transfers are signed to play, they’ve still got to earn the job. There’s no guarantee they’ll beat out long-tenured backups who have been in an offensive system for years. Ask former Florida State quarterback Jacob Coker. Blake Sims, starting quarterback for No. 1 Alabama, says hello.
If Buchanan, who I’d declare the favorite of the incumbents, impresses, relegating Kelly to the bench, how does he react? Even more, Oxford, while a small town, is known for its night life. The Square is appointment partying. Everyone should experience a football weekend at The Library or City Grocery or Funkys or the Boure balcony. Hell, a Tuesday.
But fair or not, football players, especially quarterbacks, are held to a higher standard. Kids should enjoy college. I sure did. Just don’t go all Marshall Henderson with it.
Chemistry matters, as Freeze has preached over and over and over. “All in” and all that, remember? There’s never going to be a buy-in rate of 100 percent, of course, but a disgruntled, headline-grabbing quarterback is different than, say, a pouty third-team defensive tackle.
Freeze has his work cut out for him, but he’s pulled the trigger, pushed all his chips to the middle. Chad Kelly is the play.
Freeze hit it rich – literally and figuratively – the last time he made such a move. The next two years will determine if he should have backed away from this particular table.