OXFORD — Hugh Freeze has spent his first weeks as the University of Mississippi’s football coach playing catch-up, constantly on the road or on the phone trying to convince prospects to give the Rebels a chance.
He said it has been encouraging experience. It also has been a humbling one.
“We’ve been running wide open for about eight days now,” Freeze said. “Trying to make up some ground in recruiting is a priority. We are behind. We acknowledge that. But we’re also glass-half-full guys and think that we’ll do OK in this recruiting class.”
An optimistic outlook is probably best for the 42-year-old.
Before accepting the challenge at Ole Miss, Freeze led Arkansas State to a 10-2 record and the Sun Belt Conference regular-season title. The Senatobia native was hired partly because of recruiting ties in Tennessee and Mississippi, and all those connections are being put to the test as Freeze tries to assemble a decent class in the aftermath of one of the worst seasons in Ole Miss history.
“Where there are great challenges, there’s an opportunity for greatness,” Freeze said. “So we look forward to it.”
The challenge appears daunting, but Freeze’s hiring has sparked interest in the program. The school announced Monday that its Forward Together campaign has hit the $45 million mark since the hiring of Freeze three weeks ago.
“There is no doubt coach Freeze has re-energized our fan base, and that we can attribute recent CGA commitments and capital gifts to the newest member of the Ole Miss family,” said Danny White, University of Mississippi Athletic Association Foundation executive director.
Ole Miss is trying to ascend in what’s the toughest climate in all of college football — the Southeastern Conference Western Division. The division will be home to four of the five national champions after Alabama and LSU play on Jan. 9.
The Rebels are 1-15 in the SEC in the past two seasons, including 0-10 against the Western Division. And the roster has a myriad of holes — especially along the offensive line, at running back and in the secondary.
Freeze is concerned about the on-the-field issues, but said the most pressing problem might be in the classroom. He indicated several players didn’t take care of their coursework during the fall semester as the football season was crumbling and former coach Houston Nutt was fired.
“It’s scary,” Freeze said. “We’ve got some hurdles there. Some issues. I hate to go into individual players, but we’ve got a considerable problem there. It’s not one that we’ll back away from. We’ll hit it head on and start battling that in winter session.”
Freeze is still in the process of assembling a coaching staff that can help fight the on-field and off-field problems. He brought several assistants with him from Arkansas State, including veteran defensive coordinator Dave Wommack, linebackers coach Tom Allen, defensive line coach Chris Kiffin and tight ends coach Maurice Harris, who will also serve as the program’s recruiting coordinator.
The new offensive line coach is Matt Luke, who played at Ole Miss from 1995-98. He previously held the same position at Duke.
Wommack — who has more than 30 years of coaching experience, including 16 as a defensive coordinator — didn’t know Freeze until taking the job as Arkansas State’s defensive coordinator last season. But he said the connection was immediate and that Freeze quickly proved he was able to lead a program.
“He’s got a tremendous belief,” Wommack said. “He’s so sincere — what you see is what you get with him. Don’t let him fool you, He’s not one of those ‘Aw shucks” guys. He’s sharp, he has a plan in place and he follows it. He knows how to take them to the next level.”
Freeze said he’ll call the plays at least for the first season, but wouldn’t hesitate to name an offensive coordinator if the right fit was available. He hopes to have the rest of his staff in place over the next two weeks as the bowl season ends and coaches become available for interviews.
Once that happens, it’ll be a sprint until National Signing Day on Feb. 1. Freeze said the program may have struggled in the past few years, but Ole Miss still has an attractive sales pitch. The Rebels are two years removed from back-to-back Cotton Bowl victories.
“It’s not like this is a 10-, 20-year drought we’re going through,” Freeze said. “We do have some obstacles, we do have issues and it’s going to take us some time. But it’s not like this place hasn’t won before.”
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