He had his reasons. When charting the schedule for the month, he had marked this day for a physical practice. “Extremely physical,” as he put it, and the fourth-year head coach wasn’t sure of how his team would respond.
Turns out they were ready.
“Really good practice today,” Freeze said. “You always keep your fingers crossed that when you do that and leave there you still have everyone pretty healthy. I didn’t see anyone that suffered anything today. We got a lot of great work in live situations and third downs, red zone. It was very, very physical. It went back and forth. Good competition between offense and defense. It's about as well as I can feel leaving a practice. Typically I leave feeling, ‘Gosh, our defense stunk today, or gosh our offense stunk today.’ Hard to feel great, but today I saw really good things on both sides.”
Ole Miss is in its second week of practices leading up to the Rebels’ season-opening game against UT Martin Sept. 5. With media access limited, Freeze was asked who of his players has impressed him so far.
“Fadol Brown, Isaac Gross, Mike Hilton, Trae Elston - all of those guys are leading our defense like they should,” he said. “Offensively, Evan Engram is a really good leader. Jaylen Walton has had some really exciting runs. We're limiting his reps somewhat. (Damore’ea) String(fellow) has had a really good camp. Those kind of stand out on offense. Robert Conyers is doing well. Fahn Cooper is doing really well, too.”
As far as the quarterbacks, Freeze said he has a leader in mind from the competing trio of Chad Kelly, Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade, even if he’s not naming a starter.
“I kind of have in my mind who's the leader right now after practice 12 based on the totality of what we've seen,” he said. “If your spectrum is just one practice like leaving there today, I have some mixed feelings. We'll see if what I'm feeling inside continues over the course of camp leading up to Game 1 to be verified or invalidated by practices.
“Today was a little … wasn't quite enough validation for me to say I'm all the way there yet. I'd have to go watch the film. I usually feel a little bit different after I watch the film.”
The three split reps evenly during scrimmage work Tuesday. Kincade took the first snaps with the first-team offense, followed by Kelly and Buchanan. Freeze was asked what has given his undisclosed leader an edge, adding that a final decision would come, at the earliest, game week for the Skyhawks.
“Over the course of 12 practices he's handled blitzes better,” Freeze said. “That may be the ultimate. That's one of the top things you have to look at in a quarterback is how does he handle that? Is there a time that the ball comes out carelessly or a time that you're setting the protections right and getting yourself protected to throw, standing in there taking a hit, taking care of the ball obviously and being efficient in moving the chains. Twelve practices, I think I know who's done that better. I watch closely on the field and in film, and then today you get another guy that maybe elevated himself a little bit, leaving practice today. Again, it will keep playing itself out, and I'll get the right gut feel.”
Ole Miss sophomore Rod Taylor, who tore the labrum in his shoulder last week, was absent from practice, as was the plan. He’ll sit out for two weeks and attempt to play through the injury over the course of the season.
In his absence in the starting lineup at right guard was veteran Justin Bell, who started 11 games there last season. Javon Patterson was slotted at left guard, with Laremy Tunsil and Fahn Cooper at left and right tackle, respectively, and Robert Conyers at center.
“Bell's rotating in there along with several others in Tyler Putman, Jordan Sims,” Freeze said. “Aaron (Morris) looks like he's going to be released to go starting tomorrow, hopefully. That gives us another one there. Daronte (Bouldin), he's also in the mix. Rod's rehab looks good. He's got a lot more strength now than you would think he would. We're optimistic that he's going to be able to recover and play.
“A lot of kids have (played through a torn labrum). I've had receivers who have done it before. You just wear that harness where it's less likely to come out of socket. It's definitely doable.”
Freeze anticipates Taylor being ready to play in the season opener. Morris was released for one-on-ones Monday. “We felt good about his body and the way he moved around,” Freeze said.
But of the offensive linemen not named Tunsil who have impressed, he was quick to answer: Fahn Cooper.
“He's had a tremendous off-season,” Freeze said. “I’m real proud of him. I think he's matured as a man. Its definitely shown on the field, the maturity level. And having the year under his belt, last year he got here late and was thrown into the fire, probably never caught his breath. Now he's handling it like a veteran.”
Patterson is making a case for playing time, too, and he’s being groomed for both guard spots.
“I'm comfortable with Javon,” he said. “He's playing against what I think is one of the better defensive lines in the country. He's running with the first groups, and a lot of the time you've got (Robert) Nkemdiche, Woody (Hamilton) and those guys lining up on his head. There are things he struggles with more than others like all freshmen do, but I wouldn't be afraid for him to get snaps this year.”
Chuck's Random Notes:
* A player who has burst on the scene of late is RB Akeem Judd. It looked early on in August practice that Jaylen Walton and Jordan Wilkins would dominate the running back snaps this fall, but in the last four or five workouts, Judd has emerged as a force to be reckoned with, getting tough yardage with his 225-pound frame, catching the ball well out of the backfield and making would-be tacklers miss. Now RB looks like a three-headed monster. We'll see.
* Freshman QB Jason Pellerin has made a good impression this fall camp. Big, strong and runs a 4.6 40 and in a long ball drill today, all the QBs were throwing 60-yard patterns, but Pellerin was doing it with the flick of his wrist. He has an extremely strong arm. Plus, from all accounts he is "a great kid."
* The Ole Miss wide receivers are seven deep. Talent everywhere. But as a former wideout coach, Freeze is hard on the group. “I'm harder on that group than most, maybe because that's my background, that's what I coached. We still have too many drops, too many bad top ends of routes by some. I probably don't give them enough credit and take into consideration the amount of running they do that makes the route seem a bit lazy after 12 straight practices. Those guys definitely run a lot more than the rest of our team because of all the RVAs we do to try and get timing right. It's been OK in camp. I still expect us to get better as camp goes on.”
* Any other year, freshmen wideouts DaMarkus Lodge and Van Jefferson would probably be playing - they have the goods, but the hope is to put them on the shelf for a year, let them get stronger and then unleash them on the SEC. Will WR Coach Grant Heard be able to do that? He has enough veterans to allow it, but will they all stay healthy and produce? Remains to be seen.
* Who are the strongest players on the team? We asked some members of the strength staff and the resounding number one was DT David "D.J." Jones. He has squatted 640 pounds and "could do more, but we stopped him." OG Daronte Bouldin, DT Robert Nkemdiche, DE Channing Ward, DE Fadol Brown and OT Laremy Tunsil were also mentioned. Pound for pound? RB Jaylen Walton.
* Tight end is taking a small hit right now. Jeremy Liggins is out with a hamstring pull and freshman Willie Hibbler, who we were told was having "an excellent camp," is temporarily out with a concussion. On Liggins, Freeze: “Just got to get him well from hamstring. He was having a phenomenal camp. Just something you want to get well. You don't want it to linger on.”
* Which defensive players who didn't play last year are looking to be factors this year? So far, DT Breeland Speaks, David Jones, MLB Terry Caldwell, CBs Tee Shepard and Tony Bridges and freshman Rover Zed Woods have all gained kudos from the defensive coaches.
* With Rod Taylor out, Justin Bell, who started at right guard for two years, has taken over the number one right guard slot. With Aaron Morris not quite back to full speed, freshman Javon Patterson is the number one left guard. Robert Conyers is working as the number one center and the tackles, of course, are Laremy Tunsil and Fahn Cooper.
* Based on how the DL lined up today, Woodrow Hamilton is really making his mark. He was one of the number one DTs along With Nkemdiche. Don't make too much of that, though, because there wil be a five-man rotation with Speaks, Jones and Issac Gross with Woody and Robert.
“Breeland's having a great camp, Victor's coming on,” Freeze said. “(McDowell), we've got a little more depth. He’s not getting as many reps, but he's showing up. He'll definitely help us in the depth and on special teams. Breeland's got a knack for batting balls, man. He’s just got a knack. I've never seen so many as I've seen in spring and in camp with him. Real pleased with him.”
* On the first scrimmage series, Devante Kincade was at the helm and he drove the offense 40 yards before a stall and a subsequent 35-yard field goal by Gary Wunderlich. . . . Chad Kelly directed the twos and connected with Derrick Jones for a 30-yard score on a bullet while rolling left. A special throw.
* Freshman CB Cameron Ordway had an interception off a tipped pass for the two defense. He has a really good look to him, but the guess here is a redshirt and a really bright future after that.
* Carlos Davis, who sat out all of last season with a knee injury, is running ahead of Markell Pack at No. 1 punt return. “I think Carlos would be slotted as the one right now. He was last year until his injury. Right now Carlos is 1 and Markell is 1B.”
* Much has been made about the constant position changes of Derrick Jones. He’s back at wide receiver and had a really strong spring. August, however, hasn't been as kind. “He’s not had as good a camp as he had spring,” Freeze said. “Love his attitude, love his work ethic, and he wants to so badly. He's had a few (missed assignments) at critical times that show up and a few drops. Still confident he's going to play a role for us.”