By Parrish Alford
Grind City Media Contributor
OXFORD – It was New Year’s Night in New Orleans 2016 – what better place to be? – when Hugh Freeze stood on a riser at mid-field on the Superdome turf amid a shower of red and blue confetti and declared a “new normal” for Ole Miss football.
Nineteen months later, Freeze was unemployed.
The NCAA investigation into Ole Miss football has lasted more than four years, but for more than half that time details of the probe stayed out of sight – kind of like Boo Radley.
The investigation was there. People knew it, and they whispered about it. The fact is, though, that Ole Miss went 10-3 in 2015, just a fluke lateral away from winning the SEC West. They were talented enough to win at Alabama that year while star left tackle Laremy Tunsil served a seven-game suspension.
Still under investigation in February of 2016, Freeze signed the second top-10 recruiting class of his five years as coach.
Unfortunately for the Rebels, Boo Radley has come out in the last year-and-a-half.
The Ole Miss administration announced scholarship cuts in response to one NCAA notice of allegations in the spring of 2016. The school then announced a self-imposed bowl ban in 2017 amid a second notice of potential infractions.
The Rebels, among contenders to win the West when the 2016 season began, faltered to a 5-7 finish.
Freeze’s job security was a source of constant speculation, but it was a side lawsuit spurned by the investigation – one of two currently – that got him fired when phone records showed what vice chancellor for athletics Ross Bjork called a disturbing pattern of behavior. Freeze resigned under pressure on July 20.
Now former Ole Miss player and long-time assistant Matt Luke, the interim coach, has his dream job. But will anyone at Ole Miss rest peacefully soon?
“It’s a job I’ve been preparing my whole life for,” said Luke, barely a month into taking over amid the turbulence. “I feel more strongly now than ever that I’m the right man to run this program.”
But for how long?
Photo Credit: Joshua McCoy/Ole Miss Athletics.
The answer to that question will depend in large part on his players’ frame of mind. At present, no one – not even decorated five-stars in that 2016 signing class like quarterback Shea Patterson or offensive tackle Greg Little – has transferred.
Instead, the Rebels have methodically progressed through adversity toward Saturday’s season opener against South Alabama, a team that knocked off SEC West rival Mississippi State this time a year ago.
Throughout the off-season, Freeze praised the Rebels’ mental make-up, and Luke repeated those themes over the past month. Words like “resiliency” have been tossed around to describe the players.
“They’ve never wavered,” Luke said.
Players insist that’s the case.
“I was telling somebody the other day, ‘Anything you hear negative out of our locker room is completely wrong,” junior center Sean Rawlings said. “People want to always ask about the locker room. It’s great, it’s still the same. I feel like we’ve gone through so much. Why lose the unity now? It just brings you closer together. That’s what adversity does.”
Yet, that lingering cloud of adversity won’t pass anytime soon. There are early challenges on the field, where after Saturday’s opener, the Rebels then play host to upset-minded FCS program UT-Martin on Sept. 9. And off the field, two days later, Ole Miss athletic administrators are scheduled to meet with the NCAA infractions committee to determine the next step in the ongoing investigation.
Then, comes the meat of the schedule with a stretch of road games against California, Alabama and Auburn as the Rebels play through all of the uncertainty. What’s known, and perhaps comforting, is Luke’s history of being able to adapt and persevere through sudden change.
A former starting center, Luke played under Tommy Tuberville and was a captain in 1999 when David Cutcliffe was hired. He’s worked as an assistant coach at Ole Miss with Cutcliffe, Ed Orgeron and Freeze. Subtract Billy Brewer’s 10-year run from 1983 to 1993, and Ole Miss coaches after the legendary John Vaught have a career life expectancy of 4.1 years.
People want to always ask about the locker room. It’s great, it’s still the same. I feel like we’ve gone through so much. Why lose the unity now? It just brings you closer together. That’s what adversity does.
— Sean Rawlings
The prospect of stability from Luke would no doubt be appealing to Bjork if Luke shows the prospect for wins, too. His audition season could carry a lot of weight. To that end, Luke hasn’t exactly been given the keys to a Lamborghini. But he’s not pushing a lemon, either.
Patterson leads a potentially explosive offense with depth and ability at wide receiver, and a run game with interesting potential. New offensive coordinator Phil Longo put up video-game like numbers at Sam Houston State, an FCS school. He’ll have senior Jordan Wilkins and third-year sophomore Eric Swinney in the mix, two guys Freeze didn’t have last year.
Wilkins, perhaps the Rebels’ best back at the end of 2015, missed last season due to an administrative error relating to his academics. He rushed for 379 yards, four touchdowns and 5.3 yards per carry as part of a three-back rotation two seasons ago.
Swinney tore up a knee in last year’s season opener against Florida State, which was the second major injury of his young college career. How he responds will determine a lot of how that run game unfolds.
Elsewhere offensively, the Rebels must replace All-American tight end Evan Engram. Two walk-ons are at the top of the tight end depth chart right now, but young wide receivers DK Metcalf and A.J. Brown – a redshirt freshman and a sophomore – are big and physical.
Ole Miss defensive end and Syracuse transfer Qaadir Sheppard says the Rebels’ pass rush has been dominant in camp and is ready for a strong season.
Defensively, Luke is hoping for a bounce-back year from tackle Breeland Speaks. If he gets it, the Rebels could be solid along the front with sophomore Benito Jones at nose and sack specialist Marquis Haynes, a stellar defensive end who contemplated leaving early for the NFL after last season. Twice an All-SEC choice, Haynes has 24 ½ career sacks.
Middle linebacker was a revolving door for the Rebels last year. Detric Bing-Dukes was listed No. 1 on the preseason depth chart, but he and veteran defensive back Ken Webster are suspended for Saturday’s game against South Alabama, which stemmed from their early August arrest for shoplifting.
Taking that disciplinary action was among the first public moves Luke made days into his interim role. There’s been a lot to manage beyond football, and Luke is not blind to the challenge ahead. But he’s facing 2017 with the enthusiasm that has marked his career.
And getting back to the actual games can’t come soon enough.
“I’m excited about our players – they just want to play football,” Luke said. “My expectation is that we put a product on the field that plays with passion and energy, and that we put a product on the field that all Ole Miss fans are going to be proud of.”
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