But it was almost six.
Freeze landed Auburn defensive backs coach and co-defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff as his defensive coordinator in mid-December. The Tigers attempted to return the favor in pursuing Ole Miss cornerbacks coach Jason Jones to replace McGriff. However, after briefly considering the offer, Jones remained at Ole Miss for what will be his fifth season.
Auburn wasn’t the only opportunity for Jones. However, Jones said loyalty to his players, as well as the opportunity to continue to work for Freeze and start fresh with a long-time friend in McGriff, made his decision to stay the right one.
“First of all, it’s the young men on the team,” he said. “It’s the same guys on the team that we had this past season. It’s the same ones we went to the Sugar Bowl with. The talent is there, and it’s young talent. So that’s really exciting to me. And sometimes you can go to another place, and just because you think the grass is always greener on the other side, it might not necessarily be that way. Coach Freeze is a great head coach and a great man. I’ve enjoyed working for him, and my family loves Oxford. I wanted to be a part of getting the program back to where it can be, where we know it can be. The talent is there. And also being able to work with coach McGriff and having a relationship with him and the defensive staff that he’s put together.
“Coach (Bradley Dale) Peveto is great. He’s a sharp football coach, Xs and Os, high energy. He’s doing a great job with those linebackers. And also (defensive line) coach (Freddie) Roach. Coach Roach and I, we know each other. Coach Roach’s older brother was my roommate in college, so I’ve been knowing him and his family since he was probably in middle school. But being able to work with those guys every day, and coming into that defensive staff room, is great. They’re all great coaches and great men.”
The talent at Jones’ disposal includes the return of now-sophomore starters Jaylon Jones and Jalen Julius. Veteran Ken Webster could rejoin the fold in the coming months, too. Webster, a senior, suffered a season-ending ACL injury in the Rebels’ season-opening loss to Florida State.
And there’s depth at corner in the form of junior Cam Ordway, who played minimally in 2016, junior college transfer Javien Hamilton and converted sophomore safety Myles Hartsfield. Ole Miss is five practices into spring football. Hartsfield was moved over after Julius broke his arm on the first day. Webster isn’t participating in spring practices.
Jones said Hartsfield has been the surprise of camp.
“Through five practices, the biggest surprise is Myles Hartsfield,” Jones said. “We signed Myles as a corner, but the need, physically, he could help us at safety, so last year we played him at safety. Well, we get to the first practice (of spring football) and Jalen Julius breaks his arm. We were short at corner with Kendarius Webster already being out. So I took Myles in the middle of one-on-ones and said, ‘Hey, Myles, today I need you to play corner.’ We had Breon Dixon and A.J. Moore playing the Star (defensive back/linebacker hybrid position in a 4-2-5 defense). Myles hopped in there, and day one it looked like he had been at corner his entire life. He finished that day with a great practice. The next four days he just kept getting better and better. So far, he’s the biggest surprise of the spring.
“Jaylon Jones, he’s doing good. Just constantly pushing him to push himself to get better. Every day he’s growing up and he’s improving. Still a sophomore, so my challenge to him is to every day be consistent. Don’t have a great practice and then the next day is an OK one. Every day when you come out there, have a great practice. Montrell Custis is a guy we repped at corner some this spring so far. Coach McGriff and I were talking about (how) he played safety in high school, played Star for us last year. He could be that swing guy for us. We’re going to talk about it and see where he would best fit to help us. He gives some flexibility.
“Cam Ordway, his deal last year, I don’t know if it was just a maturity issue. All those guys mature at different times. But one thing I did challenge him with, before spring ball, was to lock in and be consistent. The first five practices he’s done some good things. He’s another young man, when you look at him, he has great instincts and he’s physical. His approach since last season has been a lot better. He’s doing the little things off the field. Not only is he working hard with (Ole Miss strength and conditioning) coach (Paul) Jackson, but he’s coming in on his own and doing extra. He’s another young man coach McGriff and I talked about he could possibly be a Star or safety for us. He’s already 190 pounds. He’s another guy who we may look at switching him before spring is over just to give him some reps at another spot. But he’s doing good so far.”
In the end, Jones is where he wants to be, and where he’s needed. He said he’s all in with helping getting Ole Miss back to national relevance following a disappointing 5-7 finish a year ago.
“We just want to go out and prove everybody wrong and show everybody that, hey, Ole Miss is a top program,” Jones said. “We want to get it back to the national level. I’m a guy, growing up, nothing was ever easy for me. Everything that I wanted, or the things I always ended up achieving, I had to work hard for. It’s no different here.”
On the change from Dave Wommack to McGriff: “The change has been good. Coach Wommack did a great job for us. Coach McGriff coming in, he’s been here before. He was familiar with a lot of the guys that are on the team now, so that was good for him. And everybody else in the athletics department, they know him, so that was a smooth transition. Since he’s gotten here, he’s done a great job as far as being organized and setting up the daily schedule, the meeting times and the installation schedule and the energy that he brings to practice and the work ethic. It could be 5 o’clock in the morning or 12 o’clock at night and he’s going to be the same.”
More on the change: “I think the biggest thing is the discipline that he’s instilling in the defense and holding every guy accountable, even the coaches. It goes as far as when you walk in the building taking your hats off and taking your earphones off your ears and making sure the locker room is exactly the way it’s supposed to be. Everything is hanging in your locker exactly how it’s supposed to be. The little things like that will carry over on Saturday, game day. It’s been great. The players have really taken to it. He told them from the very beginning that there was going to be some changes, and we’re going to ask you to do some hard things. And if you buy in and do those hard things, it’ll pay dividends in the end. All of them, they’ve bought it. They’ve bought in, and they’re doing everything we’ve asked them to do. It’s been really good.”
On the difference in defensive scheme: “Pretty much everybody runs the same thing, you just change the name. Everybody just calls it something different. Our base is going to be a 4-2-5, so the biggest thing is his philosophy is just keeping it simple. We recruited athletes. Keep it simple and allow those athletes to play. Don’t paralyze them with scheme. Don’t put too much on their plate and require them to make too many checks and require them to think too much to where they’re not allowed to play. That’s the biggest thing. And then in the back end, we’ll play some man-free, but also we’ll play enough Cover 2 to keep the quarterback and offenses honest. But at the same time, it’ll give our guys in the secondary a break. We’ll also play some Quarters and we’ll pressure some. It’s a good mixture of things to do. But I think the biggest thing is just keeping it simple and allowing the guys to play fast. That way they can get reps at the base defense and understand it and be good at it.”
On recruiting philosophy at cornerback: “What we try to do is sign big corners that are physical so you can move them around. We talk to them about that all the time. If your goal and aspirations are to play on the next level, the more positions that you show that you can play, the more valuable that you’ll be when that time comes. All the guys have bought in. They understand that we’re going to put the best guys out there, the guys that give us the best opportunity to win.”