And that includes head coach Hugh Freeze.
Freeze served 13 years at Briarcrest Christian School as a classroom teacher, coach and administrator. He was the Saints’ head football coach from 1995-2004, running his no-huddle spread system for six years that led to six straight state championship games.
He compiled a 99-23 record while at Briarcrest, which included an undefeated season in 1996 and state championship titles in 2002 and 2004. He’ll make his return Saturday at the Liberty Bowl when No. 13 Ole Miss takes on Memphis (5-0) at 11 a.m.
“I have nothing but good feelings for the people of Memphis - that town, those people were very good to me for 13 years,” Freeze said.
Head coach Justin Fuente has ushered in a revival of Memphis football.
The program was 5-31 in the three seasons that preceded his hiring in 2012. Now the Tigers are receiving votes (59) in the Associated Press Top 25 poll and have won 12 consecutive games. They’re off to their best start in 54 years.
“I respect the job that Justin has done there,” Freeze said of the Tigers, who had a bye last week. “What a good football team they have. They’re very good in all facets, and they’re playing confident. I have no idea what kind of reception I’ll have, but I’d hope there’s a mutual respect. I have it.”
Six Rebels call Memphis home, including starting running back Jaylen Walton and kicker Gary Wunderlich. Wunderlich was only able to get a small taste of the close-proximity rivalry last season.
Wunderlich was wrongfully ejected following the game’s opening kickoff after players for both teams exchanged some pushing and shoving. Memphis defender Fritz Etienne lost his helmet in the skirmish, which Wunderlich was credited for.
Ole Miss went on to win 24-3.
“It was the first kickoff last year, so I really didn’t get to be a part of it at all,” he said. “Ole Miss is so close to home, but it’s definitely going to be special to be able to play there in front of the hometown. I hope a lot of them come out and watch us play. I know there are a lot of Memphis guys on the Memphis team, and a lot of Memphis guys on our team. It’ll be a really good Saturday.”
“Anytime you play a team that’s in close proximity to you, there’s an element of rivalry there,” Freeze said. “With both teams having good seasons and a lot to play for, that intensifies it.”
A DIFFERENT FREEZE
Ole Miss defensive back Mike Hilton said Freeze was much more animated in practices last week.
Expect more of the same moving forward.
“The whole week of practice he was jumping around with us, talking and having a lot of energy,” Hilton said. “Seeing that from your head coach is going to affect the guys around him. It showed in how we played. If he keeps this up, we know we can keep this thing going.”
The Rebels easily disposed of New Mexico State, 52-3, to move to 5-1 (2-1 SEC) on the year - an easy, blowout win that came at the perfect time. Ole Miss was handed a disappointing loss at Florida the week prior, and a laundry list of players were banged up and in need of rest.
But for Freeze, the week was an opportunity to test his theory that he needs to be more passionate for a team Freeze believes is capable of winning any game it plays.
“This team, I think, needs me to be more passionate and show emotion, which some teams don’t react real well to that,” Freeze said. “Here’s the deal with this team and our coaching staff. We have got to understand the amount of energy, the amount of focus that it takes to put into every single play in order for that play to be successful, and then forget it and move on. Every single play has a life of its own, and you never know if that might be the turning point in competitive football games, which we’re getting ready to have for the remainder of the year. There were a lot of (good plays against New Mexico State). But I’m so locked into the ones that aren’t.
“It’s one thing for a team to have a successful play when, you know what, schematically they got us there. Or that kid just made a great play or a great run. It’s another thing for us to line up and not execute the plan and it causes a negative play. Whether it’s the punt return team, whether it’s the offense blowing a blocking assignment or the defense blowing a coverage. We still have those going on. We have to come in (Sunday), look at every one of them and as a coach, figure out if I’m doing everything I can to ensure that that’s not going to happen. And then players have to see it like that also. We did a lot of good things, but there’s still some critical areas or moments in the game when we don’t execute it properly.”
Hilton moved to “husky,” the hybrid safety/linebacker role of Ole Miss’ 4-2-5 defense, against New Mexico State. He replaced A.J. Moore, the backup to injured starter Tony Conner. The role change for Hilton was but one of the myriad tweaks Ole Miss made in an effort to provide the team with a spark.
Just like Freeze stepping a little bit out of his comfort zone.
“That’s outside of his character,” Hilton said. “He’s more of a laid back kind of guy. But he’s really starting to come out of his shell knowing what this team can accomplish. He’s really starting to believe in our abilities and the coaches around him to make the team win. We’re happy with how things are going.”
Four running backs touched the ball against New Mexico State.
One, though, stood out.
Sophomore Eugene Brazley led the team with 98 rushing yards on six carries. Yes, most of his yards - and his only touchdown - came on a 78-yard burst with the game well in hand and against a number of reserves, but he was impressive nonetheless.
For the year, Brazley, who’s appeared in four games, ranks second on the team behind Walton with 211 yards on 17 carries. Could he be possibly be working his way up from mop-up duty to meaningful snaps?
Freeze didn’t dismiss the possibility.
“All I know is he makes the most of his opportunities,” Freeze said. “We say something around here that’s really true. Prepare for your opportunity, even if it doesn’t come. He has handled that beautifully. When his opportunities come, he’s made the most of them. It’s something we have to continue to look at for sure.”