Hugh Freeze -

The contrast between the way the wide receivers played last year and the way they have performed through 11 games this season is like the musical difference in Rick James and Burt Bacharach. One is super freaking all over the place, the other is melodic and precise. Why? Several reasons.

The ugly duckling transformed into a beautiful swan.

The redheaded, freckle-faced, gap-toothed tomboy turned into Nicole Kidman.

The toad, when kissed by the princess, morphed into the handsome prince.

It happens. . . but not all that often.

When last season of Ole Miss football ended, and offseason speculation for the 2007 season began, not one single, solitary soul said, "the wide receivers will be a strength this season."

Why would they? There was little indication drastic change was on the way at those positions.

The oldest, Mike Wallace, was blazing fast, but he looked stiff, unsure of himself and had erratic hands.

Mike Hicks was a big target, but his speed was suspect. . . Marshay Green was quick, but small and his hands were not overly reliable. . . Dexter McCluster, also small, was dynamite when healthy, but missed most of last season with injury. . . Shay Hodge had excellent hands, but seemed to get lost in the shuffle.

Enter Hugh Freeze, who took over the wideouts after a year of coaching the tight ends when Matt Lubick bolted for Arizona State.

The ugly duckling slowly started blossoming.

Now, the wideouts are considered by anyone paying close attention one of the top units on the team, if not THE best.

Freeze takes little credit, but somebody had to harness all the talent and clean it all up. Give it confidence. Nurture it. Figure out where it all fit. Drive it. Pet it. Fuss at it. Mold it. Maximize it.

He says it was not difficult because the players were already determined not to face the criticism they had in 2006.

"From the time the 2006 season ended, they immediately got together and made a pact. They determined and declared they were going to do whatever it took to get the job done and they went to work," Hugh noted.

Wallace, who has evolved into the pseudo spokesman with the media, cuts to the chase with what was happening.

"Last year was embarrasing for us. We were young and had never played. We felt helpless at times. There was so much confusion and uncertainty. It wasn't anybody's fault. We didn't know what we were doing. All we knew was that we didn't want to feel that way again," he said a couple of weeks into the season.

Freeze brought a more "relaxed" flavor to spring training, gently working on their psyche and confidence first.

As their belief rose, he turned up the heat and started to demand more, and each time he did the still-young group responded.

"Spring training was big. It accomplished two big things. The kids got their stingers back and I was able to figure out who could do what and started learning who to put in situations where they could succeed," he explained. "Each one of them has their own skill sets and we didn't want to put them in positions to fail."

But none of that would have been possible without a total buy-in by the players, which Wallace said was not difficult at all under Freeze.

"We have fun out there now," Mike continued. "Some of that is because we got better and our work started paying off, but some of it is the environment we play under with Coach Freeze. We are very serious about getting the job done, but we are having fun doing it."

Part of the fun is the personalities of the players. All love poking fun at each other, which drives competition on and off the field.

After Wallace returned a kickoff for a TD against NW State, he was riding Green about when he was going to do something in the punt return game. Green responded by returning a punt all the way against LSU.

"I guess I have to shut up now," Mike smiled. "We push each other like that. We compete in everything. I beat him in Madden Football all the time. . . "

Green does not concur.

"He takes the Patriots every time and still can't beat me. All he does is throw to Randy Moss and I beat him regularly," Marshay laughs.

It's that way on the field as well, in practice and in games. Every drill is a competition, every rep gets a biting comment, which translates into "anything you can do I can do better."

"I like when my coaches get that kind of environment going," said Ole Miss Coach Ed Orgeron. "People perform at their highest level when there is that type of competition and that kind of togetherness."

Freeze's personality plays right into that. He likes to compete himself and he is not shy about throwing a good-natured jab here and there to get things going.

In practice yesterday, a receiver dropped a pass between two dummies that were being pushed into the receiver or in the line of fire of the pass - a distraction drill.

"Oh no, he can't take a distraction," Freeze challenged. The other WRs chirped in as well. Then Freeze demonstrated how it's done, catching the ball cleanly amidst the howls of the wideouts trying to break Hugh's attention.

It's like that constantly, which means fun, which begets many positives.

But it's not like Freeze doesn't get stern when needed.

"Oh, he can get on you with the best of them, but we know we deserve it when he does," Hodge said recently.

Again, Freeze deflects the attention away from himself.

"You have to have players who will take coaching and work hard. Our wide receivers give us great effort every day and they take whatever instruction we give them with the attitude of they are trying to make us better," Hugh added. "That's why they have gotten better - their attitudes. To the man, they have given everything they have."

Now the Rebels head to Starkville for the finale of the 2007 season and even though the season has been a poor one for the team, the wideouts would like to help end it with a good taste in their mouths.

"A win would be big to springboard us to the offseason and next season," said Green. "We are going to fight to get one."

A win would require an excellent effort, said Freeze.

"Coach (Ellis) Johnson does a good job of mixing coverages up," Freeze noted. "We have to be able to recognize what they are doing and react quickly to it. Last year, I don't know if they were prepared to do that. This year, I think they are."

The wideouts are also dealing with a different quarterback this week - Brent Schaeffer - but Freeze said the adjustment should not be difficult.

"The main thing with Brent is that you just have to stay alive in your routes longer. You never know when he may scramble to buy time and you have to keep working to get open or get ready to block if he tucks and runs," Hugh explained. "As far as the timing, it's not that much different. Brent has been throwing to these guys all year in the QB rotation. It's just a matter of recognizing what he's doing and reacting accordingly in terms of staying alive and being able to adjust our routes if needed.

"He has a little more zip on the ball, but that should not be a problem. It's not a huge deal because we have been working with him."

No matter what happens tomorrow against the Bullies, one thing has already been decided.

The wideouts improved by leaps and bounds, if not more, in 2007. More is expected in 2008.

"We have a foundation of what we can be, but we haven't reached our potential yet. Our pact to get better does not stop just because we made improvement this year," said Hicks. "It will continue as long as we are here."

More fun is on the way.

The swan will just get prettier.

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