By David Brandt/The Associated Press
OXFORD — Quarterback Bo Wallace tossed a football up and down on the sidelines. Receiver Donte Moncrief stood holding his helmet, offering encouragement to teammates.
Ole Miss’ annual Grove Bowl wasn’t about watching the team’s stars. Instead, Saturday’s spring football workout was one more opportunity for second-year coach Hugh Freeze to find more depth as the Rebels attempt to improve on last year’s 7-6 record and become a consistent contender in the Southeastern Conference.
“You just want to see the kids play extremely hard, handle their assignment and make some plays whether its offense or defense,” Freeze said. “And I think we saw some of that today. There were some people who stood out.”
With music blaring over the loudspeakers and coaches freely roaming the field, Saturday’s final spring workout felt much more like a practice than a game and sometimes even seemed like a school infomercial.
The Rebels did go through three sections of practice that were full-contact scrimmages, but those bursts of true football were surrounded by commercials on the stadium’s gigantic 48-feet tall and 84-feet wide video board that advertised season tickets and unveiled changes to next year’s uniforms.
Freeze said the relaxed spring game atmosphere — which was played in front of an announced crowd of approximately 28,000 — was largely because the team has been hit hard with injuries.
“We just wanted to get out of this healthy,” Freeze said. “No more damage.”
There were a few big plays. Linebacker Serderius Bryant picked off a pass and returned it 75 yards for a touchdown while Ja-Mes Logan caught five passes for 101 yards. Backup quarterback Barry Brunetti had a disappointing day, completing just 3 of 13 passes for 55 yards and an interception.
“The defense is way ahead of the offense right now,” Freeze said. “I don’t know if that’s all bad. You’ve got to play great defense in this league and we’re headed in the right direction.”
Several key players didn’t play on Saturday because of injuries, including Wallace, Moncrief, cornerback Charles Sawyer and defensive end C.J. Johnson.
Wallace and Johnson have the most serious injuries. Wallace had offseason surgery to repair his ailing throwing shoulder while Johnson broke his leg early in the spring drills. Both are expected to be healthy by the time preseason practice opens in August.
While Freeze would certainly like to see his best players healthy, he knows they can play in the SEC.
Now he’s mining the depths of his roster to find other guys who can help. The Rebels also have a highly-regarded recruiting class coming to campus this summer, including defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, who was the nation’s consensus No. 1 overall recruit.
“I just want to get all those guys in here so we have some quality depth,” Freeze said. “So that when we go (second-string and third-string) we’ve got guys who have a good chance at competing at this level.”
Some that impressed on Saturday included running backs Mark Dodson and I’Tavius Mathers, defensive back Chief Brown and defensive end Channing Ward.
The Rebels are especially high on Ward after his promising, but inconsistent, freshman season. The 6-foot-4, 256-pound sophomore had three tackles and a sack on Saturday.
“I just think he’s a high-repetition guy who needs more reps,” Freeze said. “He wants to do so well and wants to be confident in what he’s doing. He’s only going to get better.”
The Rebels also hope that senior linebacker D.T. Shackleford can return to help after a promising career was derailed by back-to-back serious knee injuries.
Shackleford looked like a rising star with the Rebels in 2009 and 2010, but hasn’t been on the field in two years.
“It’s not about what I’ve done in the past, it’s about what have you done for me lately,” Shackleford said. “… I’m just working my way back so I can help at both linebacker and defensive end. I feel like I’m slowly getting back into it.”
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Read more in Sunday’s NEMS Daily Journal newspaper.