With spring practice in its latter stages, Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze and Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen took a break on the golf course.
Freeze and Mullen attracted some of the biggest applause of the day as they teed off Thursday morning at the C Spire Pro-Am. The event has become an annual trip to the Coast for the Magnolia State’s two SEC football coaches, taking the course at Fallen Oak the day before the start of the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic, a PGA Tour Champions tournament.
Mullen and Freeze were paired with former champions of the MGRC. Freeze played with Tom Lehman, a former PGA Player of the Year, and Mullen was in the same group as one of the most colorful characters in the field, South African David Frost.
On hole No. 7, Frost looked at spectators and said, “I’m the coach today. That’s OK, he is coachable.”
Mullen participated in the C Spire Pro-Am for the sixth consecutive year Thursday.
“It’s just the opportunity to have this event in Mississippi,” he said. “I just feel special to be a part of it. It’s good for to have this event here. It’s an awesome honor to be a part of it.”
Play was halted about 10:45 a.m. as thunderstorms rolled through the area and a tornado warning followed not long after, causing concern in the clubhouse. The storm eventually passed, bringing only heavy rain and lightning at Fallen Oak.
Freeze’s group managed to get nine holes in and finished at an impressive 13-under.
“It was incredible,” Freeze said. “I had a great group. Tom Lehman, what a class act he is. His caddie is a great guy too. We had a lot of fun. Thirteen-under after nine, that’s the best I’ve ever done in this deal.”
Ole Miss disappointment
Thursday’s event provided a nice distraction for Freeze, who has endured a tough offseason. His team will go through a self-imposed postseason ban for 2017. The program received a new NCAA notice of allegations in February that accused the program of lack of institutional control and Freeze failed to monitor his coaching staff.
Freeze said the team has managed to stay focused this spring despite the off-field issues.
“You’ve got to handle those things in life,” he said. “It’s no different than any family that goes through difficulty. Every family is going to experience death, disease, disappointment. We’ve certainly had ours. They’ve been an extremely big motivation for me just because of how they’ve responded. So it’s been great.”
Mississippi State and Ole Miss are in the late stages of spring practice, with their spring games set for April 8.
Two freshmen from the Coast have joined the mix early at Mississippi State with former Ocean Springs receiver Austin Williams and defensive tackle James Jackson of Pascagoula enrolling early in Starkville.
Mullen believes both players will benefit greatly from their decision to enroll for the spring semester.
“It’s so huge,” he said. “It’s a huge jump start on their academic careers as well as football. They’ve got to go through an off-season, they’re going to get reps. They’re competing for playing time right now. A lot of the other guys have not been able to do that because they are still in high school. They haven’t had a chance to learn the offense or defense. It’s a big advantage to them, not just this year but throughout their careers.”
The man who helped lure the two players to Mississippi State is Pascagoula native and Florida State legend Terrell Buckley, who serves as cornerbacks coach and recruiting coordinator for Mullen.
Buckley, a former NFL cornerback, was hired in early January 2016 and has helped MSU reinforce its focus on recruiting top in-state prospects.
“T-Buck does a great job for us,” Mullen said. “He brings a wealth of knowledge from playing the position. He relates very well to the guys. You look at him developing as a coach and he continues to grow and does a great job.”
Mullen got the best of Freeze in the Egg Bowl, 55-20, this past year with his quarterback, junior Nick Fitzgerald, running roughshod over the Rebels’ defense with 14 carries for 258 yards and two touchdowns.
Mullen likes what he’s seen out of Fitzgerald during the spring.
“This year, he knows what to expect coming into the season,” he said. “It’s a big year for him. He’s taken some real positive steps forward and (is) growing in that role as the starting quarterback.”
Freeze has his own young quarterback in sophomore Shea Patterson, who took over as the starter in the final three games after Chad Kelly went down with an injury.
“He’s been good when he understands exactly what’s going on,” Freeze said of Patterson. “He’s still kind of processing new terminology, new checks and all that. He looks good, will be a really good player.”