Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze swiveled around in a chair behind his desk a couple weeks ago, getting together a small stack of papers before diving into some formations, personnel and strategy.
“I’m going to handle some special teams this spring,” Freeze said with a smile.
There hasn’t been much for the coach to smile about since then.
Ole Miss entered its spring football practice Tuesday under the ominous cloud of an ongoing NCAA infractions case, a self-imposed bowl ban and more punishment possibly on the horizon. Freeze’s job security is a valid concern as well.
The case threatens to blunt any momentum the program has built during Freeze’s first five years on the job.
The university last week announced a self-imposed one-year bowl ban for 2017 after revealing that the NCAA says the program had committed eight more rules violations in a long-running case that dates back to 2012. That brings the total to 21 violations, including 15 that are classified as Level I – used to categorize the most serious violations, according to the governing body.
The coach put on a brave face Tuesday afternoon, a few hours before his team’s first workout.
“I love how our team has responded,” Freeze said. “They’ve probably been the greatest testimony and greatest encouragement of how to handle adversity. They’ve been remarkable.”
Freeze’s tenure at Ole Miss had been mostly positive until the past year, when it became obvious that the NCAA investigation might unveil some major concerns. He took the Rebels to bowl games in each of his first four seasons, culminating with a 10-3 record in 2015 that ended with a Sugar Bowl victory over Oklahoma State.
But as the investigation intensified, Ole Miss fell to 5-7 in 2016. Now the Rebels are dealing with the fallout from the NCAA’s latest Notice of Allegations, which the university says includes one of the governing body’s most serious charges: Lack of institutional control.
University leaders said in a video they will fight that charge, along with a handful of others, and they have about three months to prepare their response. Barring any unexpected delays, Ole Miss hopes the case will go before the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions by the end of the summer or early fall.
Getting some of the charges reduced or eliminated – especially the lack of institutional control charge – could be paramount in Freeze remaining employed at Ole Miss.
If Freeze does survive the investigation, he will have some talent on the current roster to work with, especially on offense.
Sophomore quarterback Shea Patterson returns after starting the final three games last season, including a come-from-behind win over Texas A&M. He averaged nearly 300 yards passing, throwing six touchdown passes and three interceptions.
An experienced offensive line is anchored by returning starters Greg Little, Jordan Sims and Javon Patterson.
The defense – which was one of the worst in the SEC last season – is a little less settled. The Rebels do return one of the league’s leading pass rushers in defensive end Marquis Haynes.
Freeze said he’s excited about a lot of players on his roster and singled out Patterson as one who could become a cornerstone while the Rebels prepare for a season that won’t end in a bowl game.
“He can do some things that lead a program through a difficult era,” Freeze said. “I think he’s the man for it. I think he has the shoulders for it and the ability to do it.”