Ole Miss head coach talks Robert Nkemdiche, the Sugar Bowl and more

Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze met the media Monday for his pre-Sugar Bowl practices press conference. Full transcript inside.

Opening Statement...

“We’ve been on the road recruiting for the last couple of weeks. I think our guys are doing a really nice job of finding the right kids. I’m excited about where that stands. I am looking forward to seeing our team. It seems like it has been a long while since I’ve been around those guys. We are starting our bowl prep today. They will be coming in shortly, and we are looking forward to having our team meeting today. I got to watch some of Oklahoma State this weekend, and then watched some more this morning, of course. I am very impressed with the job that Coach Mike Gundy has done with his team this year. They throw the ball around as well as anyone we’ve faced this year. They have good schemes and good skill players. Oklahoma State plays extremely hard with great passion. They are a solid football team. It is going to be a great test for us. They are putting up a lot of points, 43, and close to 500 yards a game. They have a kind of bend-but-don’t-break type of defense that tries to really play extremely well in the red zone. They are going to be a great challenge. I am very excited to be playing in the Sugar Bowl. I still have to pinch myself sometimes. It is definitely a bucket list deal for me and our program. The stories of Archie Manning leading Ole Miss to the Sugar Bowl are ones that I grew up with. I actually have written in my book, called The Journey, that it was one of my bucket list items. It is exciting to be able to check that off. I know the Sugar Bowl is excited to have us. Someone told me, I’m not sure that it is accurate, that it is the fastest sell out of the Sugar Bowl in its history. That speaks volumes for the two programs. I’m excited for the two fan bases. There is no doubt in my mind that the Rebel faithful will show up in New Orleans and be excited for this opportunity that we have. I’m ready to get to work with our kids. Obviously, we had an issue while we were out recruiting with one of our kids, Robert Nkemdiche. Anytime these things happen with young men there is no cut-and-dry answer, particularly when you don’t know all of the facts. I haven’t had a chance to visit with Robert yet. I certainly want to give him that before we talk about details. My main concern when I first heard it was his health. I believe he had stiches in his back and some of his leg, from just a short talk with he and his father on the phone. I look forward to visiting with him. When you and I grew up, we made our mistakes, but they weren’t on the front page of everything. Unfortunately today that is not the case. What kids do is well known. It certainly was a poor decision to be in the environment that he was in. Without knowing the details it is hard to say all of the issues that are involved. We will visit today when he gets back. Hopefully we will be able to get through as best we can.”

On the conversation he had with Robert Nkemdiche...

“It was really short. It was actually in between homes last night when he finally called me. I said, ‘Are you okay?’, and he said, ‘Yes, I am okay coach.’ He said he was sorry. I said, 'We will talk about all the details after we talk about all the facts, but I’m glad that you are okay.' Sometimes, when bad things happen, there are some silver linings. It’s a blessing that he wasn’t on the 10th floor; it could have been tragic. That was the short conversation. He told me how he was and what he hurt. He got some stiches, and I think his ankle is still swollen up. He said he was fine and would be fine. I look forward to visiting with him when he gets back today.”

On what his team and Alabama (both making New Year's Six Bowls in back-to-back seasons) are doing to separate themselves from the rest of the pack in the SEC…

“Win more games. I can’t speak for their program. Their consistency speaks from the job that they have done through the 10-12 years of building a depth chart that allows them to grind through the course of the season. That’s what we are attempting to do also. We are getting much closer. Until you get the depth chart exactly right, and get a year where you don’t go through a lot of injuries, the consistency part is very difficult because of all the moving parts. I watched some cutups of this week. I hate to single one guy out, but when we lost Tony Conner it really changed us. We had so many moving parts through games four through seven that really resulted from losing him. That’s what I mean by needing to continue to build consistency to where our twos and threes are just like that. The thing that we have been able to do, from the consistency standpoint, is handle adversity very well and bounce back from disappointments and stay the course to come back and win important games that put us in this position.”

On whether he expects to have Robert back for the Sugar Bowl…

“There are no cut-and-dry answers to these things until you know what you are dealing with. Kids make mistakes all the time. I wish there was a pattern that says this is exactly what you do when this happens, but we don’t have one of those. So we’ll get all the facts. The first thing we will do is let our doctors look at him and make sure he is healthy and everything is well. It really is too hard to tell.”

On the film from Oklahoma State’s defense…

“I haven’t watched much on their defense yet, or their offense. I started watching some today but I’ve been tied up in a lot of different things that are going on. (Offensive coordinator) Dan (Werner) and them have. We’ll start our game plan. I’ll look at that shortly before we go into practice. Tomorrow is when I will start to dig in and start looking at other areas. I’ve seen the stats, obviously. I think we are playing at a high level offensively, and we can’t let this spell of being off get to us. We have to attack it. I didn’t like the way that last year went, obviously. We are going to make sure our kids hear that from me every single day. And if they want to be great, they need to go out and compete in these types of games. They will hear that quite frequently.”

On the travel plans and practice for the Sugar Bowl…

“We don’t really have much control over travel. You go when the bowl says it’s time for you to get there. Really, I was referring to the break from Christmas to the time we got there (last year). I didn’t like our schedule when we got there. We practiced in the morning one day at one place and then in the afternoon at another place. A lot of it was our choosing. This year, it won’t be that way. We are going to practice at the same time at the same place. I lengthened the time that we will be here before we break for Christmas. When we get there, we are attacking it differently.”

On the team's practice schedule...

“We are practicing from today until next Monday here. When I say that, there are some variations. Wednesday and Friday will be more conditioning, weights and walk throughs. I say walkthrough, it should be run-throughs. They’ll get six good days in with pads, two good days of lifting, and then we’ll break. We are the home team, and we have first choice of practice, so we’ll be in the Superdome.”

On any repercussions on the team or Robert Nkemdiche…

“Like I said, I haven’t sat down and had any conversations with him, and I owe that to him. From my understanding, and talking to Kyle (Campbell), I think the charges are a misdemeanor. There are misdemeanor chargers a lot of the time that you have to see the whole thing for what it is, and I haven’t had the time to do that yet.”

On whether he will change his procedure on drug testing…

“We enforce our tests and will continue to do that. I am not a chemist or the person that decides what those tests are good at picking up and not. I know the values that we place here, and the things we do to try to get our kids to be the right type of men that do the right kinds of things, and it is an onslaught on society in general with the things that are going on. It’s an ongoing battle, and we’ll continue to fight as hard as we know how. Hopefully it takes with our young men in our problem.”

On if Robert Nkemdiche feels he is fine to play…

“Regardless of what reality says, he will say he is good and is ready. When he says he has stiches in his back and his leg, I don’t know for sure what that means. Certainly, when he takes a fall like that, they will check him for concussion symptoms and those things. They’ll take him through tests when he gets here. They will instruct me on where he (health-wise) is before I have my visit with him.”

On what the concern from the public says about Ole Miss fans…

“They’re passionate about their team for sure. I can’t let the passion outside our room direct our decisions. We’ll treat him just like we do any other player. We’ll get to the bottom of the facts and make a decision that we think is best for both sides and move forward. The priority is his well-being, of course. Glad to hear that.”

On Oklahoma State’s offense…

“They throw and catch it as well as any team we have seen. The quarterback is accurate and throws a really good deep ball. The receivers are very physical, get off coverage and run extremely good routes. They have done that throughout the duration of (Mike) Gundy’s career there. I used to study Gundy’s film some. They are very talented at doing that. They have good answers to defensive coverages. Again, when you have an accurate quarterback throwing it on target to athletic receivers, it makes for a tough matchup for most people, and it has been. They have been good at it all year.”

On the new contract that will boost funding for his assistant coaches…

“(Ole Miss Director of Athletics) Ross (Bjork) has always been great in approaching me if that is the right thing to do. I simply told him this year I am not concerned about me; do whatever you need to do, but we certainly need to get our assistants' pool up. He has been very gracious, and we are in talks about that right now. I am good with mine, whatever that is. I just want to get our assistant coaches up. I gave my figure to him, and he has been great. I was back in the office today and just started talking to them this morning. I’ll meet with the other half later. Everyone has been very thrilled about it.”

On the underclassmen that will submit paperwork to get a draft grade…

“Laremy (Tunsil), Robert (Nkemdiche) and Laquon (Treadwell) haven’t done anything on paperwork. They just need to make a decision at a certain point. We have issued paperwork on Fadol (Brown) and Even Engram. There may be more, don’t hold me to that. I have been out for two weeks.”

On whom he compares Oklahoma State’s offense to most in the SEC…

"Texas A&M. Very similar, I would say. Maybe they try to run the ball a little more, and a little different way than Texas A&M, but very similar.”

On the extra practices, and how it will prepare the younger players…

“Today, we have a 20-minute period that will just be young kids. I am ready to see players like Sean Curtis and those guys line up and play. I’m looking forward to that.”

On the raises requested for the assistant coaches…

“I was pleased with them. I haven’t talked to all the coaches yet, but I am sure they will be happy.”

On the NFL draft grades for the underclassmen…

“I think those kids just want to see where they are. The thing about the system is it predicts if you are a first-round pick, second-round pick or if you should go back for another year of school, which I think is very good because in the last few years, you have 50 percent of the kids that declare for the draft that don’t get drafted. You talk about a slap to the face and a cold bucket of water to you, and that is a different animal. A kid needs to know if he needs to come back to school. If he still makes that decision, I think that is much better than the old way that says maybe you’ll go in the third round, seventh round or maybe not at all. You don’t know what to tell the kid. I think some kids just do that to see where they are at. I think Tony (Conner) is coming back. I think Evan (Engram) is still in the air some. It’s been two weeks since I have visited with them.”

On the 2013 class, and how they will move forward when they leave…

“I see us recruiting another class, hopefully another top-20 class, and continue to build that depth chart that we talked about. The 2013 class has had some signature wins, along with other classes. They can’t do it alone. A lot of people talk about the four kids, Tony (Conner), Laremy (Tunsil), Laquon (Treadwell) and Robert (Nkemdiche), but we didn’t have them all together much this year. So there were other kids this year that were reasons for our success. Hopefully we continue to build what we started here.”


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