By David Brandt/The Associated Press
OXFORD — Most of the recent news about Ole Miss’ football program relates to the surprising and star-studded recruiting class Hugh Freeze landed in February.
The second-year coach is excited about bringing in that new talent. But for the next month, he’s focused on improving what he already has on the roster as the Rebels go through spring practice.
“We want to develop these guys,” Freeze said, pointing to the dozens of players still on the field following Sunday’s first spring drills. “That’s something our staff takes a lot of pride in. We want to take these kids and get them better. Going into our second spring, we understand what we want to be. I’m excited about these 15 days.”
Ole Miss finished with a 7-6 record last season, which was a remarkable feat considering the program was coming off a 2-10 season and had to learn Freeze’s entirely new offensive system.
Freeze’s offensive strategy is based on quick playcalling, which creates a frantic pace that forces the defense into quick decisions. That high tempo was successful for parts of the season, but sometimes even the Rebels would get confused and have to slow things down.
Now with a year of experience, junior receiver Donte Moncrief said there’s much more comfort in the system.
“It’s great knowing that you don’t have to be at the stage where everything is new,” Moncrief said. “There’s not a lot of processing now when a play is called. You just know what to do.”
The Rebels have one important piece missing. Quarterback Bo Wallace is out while recovering from shoulder surgery on his right arm. The 6-foot-4, 204-pound junior played through the sore shoulder for almost all of last season after suffering the initial injury against Tulane in September.
Wallace still threw for 2,994 yards and 22 touchdowns, but there was little doubt some of his 17 interceptions were caused by an inability to get added zip on passes.
He had surgery a few weeks after the team’s win over Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl and is expected back in time for preseason practice in August.
But plenty of important pieces are on the field, including Moncrief, sophomore linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche, senior cornerback Charles Sawyer and junior defensive lineman C.J. Johnson. That nucleus will likely be most important to the Rebels’ immediate future — even if the newly-signed recruiting class can provide some immediate help.
Moncrief led the Rebels with 66 catches for 979 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Nkemdiche made 82 tackles, including 13 for a loss, to lead the defense.
“It’s always great to get with your teammates and get better every day,” Moncrief said. “We signed a great class and that’s going to help us. It makes us better. But we need the guys who are already here to step up and produce more, too.”
Freeze said cornerback, tight end and the defensive line are the main areas of interest as the Rebels look to build depth.
The Rebels are especially excited about their young defensive line, which helped the team finish second in the 14-team SEC with 38 sacks last season. Johnson led the Rebels with 6½ sacks.
Ole Miss also has a veteran offensive line that should be able to protect Wallace when he comes back from his injury. The group is led by four seniors — Emmanuel McCray, Pierce Burton, Jared Duke and Patrick Junen.
“It wasn’t all perfect today, coming off spring break, but we talked about controlling our attitude and effort and things went pretty good,” Ole Miss offensive line coach Matt Luke said. “They’re doing the little things that we want them to do.”