By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze didn’t have to watch last year’s film to form an opinion about the effort level of last year’s Rebels.
He did watch the film, but just how howard the Rebels played – or how hard they did not play – was an immediate concern for many people around Freeze.
He heard about effort throughout a season which culminated in three losses by a combined scored of 113-10, the games after the firing of former coach Houston Nutt was announced.
“Obviously we did watch film from last year. I want to be careful to say that anything I say about last year has no reflection on coaches our kids or whatever. You really don’t know all the dynamics at play,” Freeze said. “I did hear from enough people that I do have trust in that the effort was not up to the expectations of the administration or what the fan base desired.”
Freeze set about to change that, and “compete for 60 minutes” became an immediate talking point that was carried throughout the off-season and continues still.
There has been early on-field success in that category. Twice the Rebels have responded positively to in-game adversity, and they are an uncharacteristic 2-0 as No. 14 Texas visits Saturday night. For Ole Miss, the game will be an SEC-like measuring stick.
“We’re looking at this like it’s a team that we’re going to beat, and we’re preparing like it’s any other team,” redshirt freshman linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche said.
That type of confidence was in short supply in a 2-10 season in 2011. The SEC season won’t begin until Sept. 29 for Ole Miss, but it will arrive with a 14-game conference losing streak.
When losses piled on top of one another last year something was missing in the attempt to break the cycle. Nkemdiche was an eye-witness during his redshirt year.
“I was there Tuesday through Thursday at practice, but on Saturday’s it didn’t look like there was any leadership,” he said. “It felt like when they were down, they were down, and they couldn’t do anything about that. This year it’s a complete 180 turn. People are stepping up, people are leading, and people are saying, ‘no, We’ve got to go out and win this game.'”
There are mixed answers as to when this new-found confidence took root.
Senior defensive tackle Uriah Grant saw the beginning of change in spring drills once Freeze was able to move the Rebels from the meeting and weight rooms to the practice field.
“I started to see a little bit in spring, then a little bit in camp, guys just chasing the ball, doing the extra things, staying after in the weight room, or after to do sprints,” senior defensive tackle Uriah Grant said. “Those little things are what show up on the field. That’s how you get wins, by doing the little things.”
It hasn’t been a quick process. As late as SEC Media Days in July Freeze estimated that less than 70 percent of players had truly “bought in.”
There has been at least one casualty as sophomore wide receiver Tobias Singleton left the program to transfer to Jackson State.
“The main thing is guys trusting in one another. We’ve been in the family, guys believing in one another that this is going to be a special year,” Grant said.
For Nkemdiche, the confidence moment was more of a lightning bolt.
“It was halftime of the UCA game. When we came in the locker room, a couple of things were said, a couple of people took it personal then went out and gave it their all. In the second half we were a completely different team,” he said.
Clearly, the meat of the schedule is in front of the Rebels beginning with the Texas beef this weekend.
Freeze still shies away from wins and losses but is intent on the continued fix of the competition aspect.
“Regardless of what we consider the effort to be last year, there is a reasonable expectation to play very passionate football for 60 minutes,” he says. “I can’t control what that scoreboard says, I can’t control our lack of depth right now, maybe we’re not as talented at some spots, but I do feel responsible for the fact that they better play hard.”