Ole Miss doesn’t have to rely on true freshman during the 2016 season, a stark contrast to Hugh Freeze’s first two years in Oxford.
When Freeze took over the job in December of 2011 to say the cupboard was bare would be a gross understatement on what he took over that day.
Freeze and his staff didn’t have much time to make inroads with the kids he was attempting to bring to Ole Miss. He signed the 41st ranked class in all of the United States in February of 2012, and most of that class was required to play immediately.
Senior tight end Evan Engram talks about playing right away in his past three years as an Ole Miss Rebel.
The Rebels had junior college signees in that class that were more likely to play right away than high school signees, but with the sheer lack of numbers Ole Miss had to rely on true freshmen immediately. Trae Elston had to play. Mike Hilton had to play. Isaac Gross had to play. There weren’t other options. They didn’t exist.
Ole Miss signed 13 players from high schools in the 2012 class. Of those, 10 played immediately. Of those, five were regular starters on a team that, somehow, won seven football games and got to the program’s first bowl game since 2009.
Then the 2013 class happened. The Rebels signed the best class in school history, headlined by Robert Nkemdiche, Laremy Tunsil and Laquon Treadwell. Those three were counted on immediately to produce. They had five stars by their name, and at a place like Ole Miss, those guys contribute immediately. They have to.
Other high school members of the 2013 class were immediately asked to contribute and start. Evan Engram started from day one at tight end, partly because he had to and partly because he was extremely under ranked before he ever came to Oxford.
“It’s tough,” Engram said of playing as a true freshman. “You can’t really prepare for the first camp. It’s a matter of how fast the offense comes and how fast you learn. I was forced to learn. I had to do it, but it’s tough because you come in and you have your head spinning a good bit.”
Fast forward to the 2014 season and Ole Miss was still in a position where they had to rely on true freshmen to produce immediately. Rod Taylor had to start games at guard. They relied on Marquis Haynes, a true freshman at defensive end. Kendarius Webster had to play corner in situations because his length was something Ole Miss didn’t have in the boundary. C.J. Hampton was asked to play safety because the depth was minimal at the position. Markell Pack, while talented, was required to play wide receiver immediately his freshman year.
Marquis Haynes admitted that while he had an advantage over some true freshmen because he enrolled early, he still found it extremely hard to prepare to play because of the grind.
For these kids, there was no tune-up period. They got to campus and they were counted on immediately, because of what Hugh Freeze encountered when he first took over this job.
Now, two years later that’s not the case. Ole Miss played five of 17 high school signees in the 2015 class. They only relied on Javon Patterson and Zedrick Woods to take significant snaps. They were able to redshirt 12 kids because the program is stable after four years. They’re not losing kids to bar fights or brass-knuckle brawls outside of a McDonald’s in the Golden Triangle.
Ole Miss signed the number eight recruiting class in the country last February according to Rivals. They signed players like Greg Little and Shea Patterson, who were both Top-10 players in the country. Little likely will get reps at left tackle, but Alex Givens and Rod Taylor are there if Little doesn’t pick up the system quickly enough. Shea Patterson won’t play significant snaps unless, God forbid, Chad Kelly is seriously injured.
They signed players like A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf that in years past would have been asked to contribute immediately at wide receiver. They won’t this year. Laquon Treadwell, Quincy Adeboyejo and Markell Pack weren’t afforded that luxury. Neither was Donte Moncrief.
They signed players like Benito Jones who in past years would be counted on immediately at defensive tackle. This year, while he’ll likely play, Jones has guys like Gross, D.J. Jones and Breeland Speaks in front of him. That wasn’t a luxury Marquis Haynes had.
“The team mentality, the team values, the way guys work in the offseason, the way guys do everything in the classroom, it’s come a long, long ways from what this program used to be,” said senior offensive lineman Robert Conyers.
A quick look shows that Ole Miss could redshirt around 65 percent of their class this season. That’s 65 percent of the eighth best class in the country. To put that it in perspective, the Rebels were forced to play 10 high school true freshmen because they had to, because there were no other options. That class, again, ranked 41st.
This year, the program doesn’t have to do that. They’re stable. For the first time, maybe ever, Ole Miss doesn’t have to rely on a true freshman to go chase down quarterbacks or to learn a complex route tree.
“In the first two days I’ve really liked what I’ve seen what I’ve seen from the young kids,” Head Coach Hugh Freeze said. “They’re obviously talented, but I think this could be our best class from the two days of being out there.”
If that’s true, it’s impressive that Ole Miss isn’t going to rely on what Freeze categorized as possibly their best class ever to fill a myriad of needs. It’s impressive that there’s going to be very few true freshmen that see playing time immediately during the 2016 season.
Four years later after Hugh Freeze inherited what at best was a mess and at worst was a bastion of turmoil so deeply entrenched in the program that the light at the end of the tunnel was beyond dim, Ole Miss doesn’t have to rely on true freshmen day one anymore.
Collin Brister is a staff writer for HottyToddy.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.