The seven biggest adjustments Hugh Freeze needs to make this spring.
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Ole Miss looked much better in 2012, finishing year one of the Hugh Freeze era at 7-6.
However, Freeze wants to take his team to another level this season. For that to happen, the Rebels must begin making adjustments in several important statistical categories.
Among areas of concern for Ole Miss last season were pass defense, punting, punt returns, field goals, kickoff-coverage, third-down defense and turnover margin.
It’s important to note that four of the seven categories above were special teams areas.
Without vastly improved special teams play in 2013, Ole Miss won’t possibly be able to meet their own expectations this season. In a conference as talented as the SEC, it’s the little things that make differences in games.
Let’s review each area of deficiency Freeze must focus on this spring.
Unless otherwise notated, the stats used are courtesy of the SEC Digital Network and CBS Sports Gametracker.
Rebels Yielded 246.5 Yards Per Game Passing in 2012
The Ole Miss pass defense wasn’t exactly great last season, yielding an average of 246.5 yards passing per contest (No. 10 in SEC). The Rebels also gave up 22 touchdowns through the air in 2012, only allowing fewer passing touchdowns than Arkansas (24) and Tennessee (26).
New cornerbacks coach Jason Jones will have his work cut out for him this spring and summer, as he tries to strengthen the secondary along with defensive coordinator and safeties coach Dave Wommack.
Fortunately, the Ole Miss secondary should be one of the better top-to-bottom units they’ve had at the spot in quite some time. As it looks right now, Mike Hilton, Dehendret Colins and Brishen Matthews should be the top choices to play the hybrid huskie spot. However, also keep an eye on highly touted recruit Tony Conner when he puts on pads this summer.
Coach Jones will head up a unit led by Charles Sawyer, Senquez Golson and Nick Brassell. Finally at safety, Trae Elston, Cody Prewitt and Chief Brown should lead the charge.
The Rebel run defense played admirably last year, only allowing 129.3 yards per game on the ground (No. 6 in SEC). If the pass defense improves as it should this season, Ole Miss could be one of the better defenses in the conference.
Rebels Net Punting Average Was Only 36.6 Yards in 2012
Ole Miss was No. 13 in the SEC in punting last year, with an average punt of 40.5 yards and an average net punt of 36.6 yards.
By comparison, Arkansas led the SEC by averaging 44.7 yards per punt and 40.8 net yards per punt.
Out of nowhere, one-time Miami-Ohio P Jim Broadway tried out for the Rebels last spring. While many tryouts don’t pan out, Broadway’s certainly did. Hugh Freeze was so pleased with Broadway that he decided to redshirt senior Tyler Campbell in 2012.
Broadway certainly didn’t perform poorly last season, but statistically he didn’t have the best year in comparison to his SEC punting counterparts. A four-yard average difference between the No. 1 punting team (Arkansas) and Ole Miss at No. 13 doesn’t sound like a big deal, but special teams play is where many games are won and lost.
In comparison to Broadway at 40.5 yards (per CBS Sports Gametracker) per punt last season, three-year starter Campell has a career punting average of 44.6 yards per punt. If he can put up similar numbers in his final season as a Rebel, Ole Miss should climb mightily in the punting category this year.
Preserving Campbell and K Andrew Ritter’s final years of eligibility for year two of the Freeze-era may turn out to be one of the most prudent coaching decisions in recent history.
Rebels Only Averaged 5.6 Yards Per Punt Return in 2012
Another category in which Ole Miss came in last among SEC teams was on punt returns (5.6 yards per return).
Missouri led the conference with an average return of 15 yards per punt, while a total of six SEC clubs averaged punt returns of 10.5 yards or more (Missouri, South Carolina, Florida, Texas A&M, Tennessee and Vanderbilt).
In a conference comprised of some of the best defenses in the nation, it’s vital that Ole Miss be able to yield a punt return average at least on par with the rest of the conference. That simply wasn’t the case last year.
Korvic Neat fielded 15 of the Rebels’ 24 punt returns in 2012, while Philander Moore (recently dismissed from the team) handled five returns. However, Neat only averaged 5.1 yards per return in 2012.
For a team looking to take the next step, stats in the punt return category simply must improve.
Besides Neat, Ole Miss will likely consider true athletes like Nick Brassell, Quadarias Mireles and maybe even starting running back Jeff Scott to field punts in 2013 in hopes of better returns.
There is enough talent in Oxford to yield much better than 5.6 yards per punt return this season.
Expect Ole Miss to discover some new punt-return guys between now and the fall.
Rebels Were Only 18-of-28 on Field Goals in 2012
While senior K Bryson Rose kicked a game-winner to beat Arkansas last season, he only managed to make 18 of 28 attempts in 2012 (64 percent overall). From 40-plus yards, Rose was only 7-of-15 last year (47 percent).
In 2013, redshirt senior Andrew Ritter, sophomore Nathan Noble and greyshirt freshman Andy Pappanastos will be the top contenders to attempt field goals. However, Ritter enters the favorite after redshirting in 2013.
There’s really not a lot of analyzing to do in this area. Instead, Ole Miss simply must find their guy and hope he can be productive all season. While field goals didn’t really cost the Rebels any games last year, the outcome could be much different in close games this fall.
Rebels Finished Last in SEC Kickoff Coverage with a 38.8-Yard Net Average
There are only 14 teams in the SEC, and the Rebels finished dead last in terms of kickoff coverage last season (38.8 net average kickoff). In comparison, Auburn ranked atop the conference with an average net kickoff of 43 yards.
While the difference between the leader at 43 yards and Ole Miss at 38.8 yards sounds miniscule at only 4.2 yards per kickoff, giving up four more yards on each kickoff sets opponents up with consistently better field positions.
Special teams is a tricky part of football, but a very important one. Rebel special teams coordinator Tom Allen understands this unit needs to improve in 2013, so expect to see some new faces covering kickoffs this fall.
Rebels Allowed Opponents to Convert 3rd Downs at 38.2 Percent in 2012
Florida (31.0 percent), LSU (31.9 percent), Alabama (32.9 percent) and Texas A&M (32.4 percent) led the SEC in opponent third-down percentage last season, while Ole Miss allowed third-down conversions 38.2 percent of the time.
To be among the best, you must play like the best. For the Rebels, that means playing more efficiently when it comes to opponents’ third-down attempts in 2013. The aforementioned teams that ranked atop the conference category were among the top overall teams in the SEC last year.
In all fairness, by and large, the Ole Miss defense was a relatively young group in 2012. Huskie Mike Hilton, NT Issac Gross, LB Denzel Nkemdiche and S Trae Elston were all freshmen last season. Additionally, the defense was in its first season under new defensive coordinator Dave Wommack.
In year two under Wommack, the Rebels should look more efficient on third downs.
Rebels Finished 2012 with Total Turnover Margin of Minus-1
While the Rebel defense intercepted 15 passes last season, Rebel quarterbacks threw a league-worst 18 interceptions throughout the course of the year. It’s a passing turnover margin that must improve in 2013.
The minus-one overall turnover margin for Ole Miss put them at No. 9 in the SEC. In comparison, five conference teams finished with turnover margins of plus-11 or better (Mississippi State, LSU, Florida, Alabama and Georgia).
In terms of fumbles in 2012, the Rebels gained 13 fumbles while only losing 11. In an offense as high-paced, non-stop as Hugh Freeze’s system, 11 fumbles isn’t just awful. However, Freeze would certainly like to think his club could gain more than what equates to roughly just one fumble per game.
The easiest way to improve the minus-one turnover margin this season will be for QB Bo Wallace to be much more careful throwing the ball. Now with a year under his belt as an SEC signal-caller, the junior should be able to make better decisions under pressure than he did in 2012.
If that happens, look for Ole Miss to end 2013 with well more than only a plus-one turnover margin.