Hugh Freeze looked tired on Saturday night in the moments after his team was blown out by Mississippi State 55-20 in the 113th edition of the Egg Bowl on Saturday night.
“It stinks. It is disappointing. I hate it for our fans, university, seniors and for everyone involved in our program, and our supporters,” Freeze said. “It’s not the way you want to end the season.”
Perhaps he was tired of sitting in the same seat and answering the same questions about how his team came unraveled, losing five of its last seven games, four of them by double digits.
Perhaps tired of discussing the deficiencies on the worst defense he has had in his tenure.
Whatever it was or was not specifically, it was clear that the free fall that Ole Miss endured in the last two months of the season took a toll on the fifth-year head coach and his team.
“It’s been the most difficult of my professional career,” Freeze said. “Whether it be the disappointments, to the injuries to everything going on around the program, it’s been a very difficult season. I am glad the season is over now. It has been difficult. I can’t wait to hit the road recruiting and make the necessary changes and get to spring ball.”
As hard as this season was to digest for Freeze and his staff– one that began with the Rebels being national contenders and ended in a losing record– the offseason won’t get any easier.
A four year long NCAA investigation is hovering over the program like a black cloud off of the field, and on it there are questions everywhere, ones that will need answers.
What direction does Freeze go in replacing Defensive Coordinator Dave Wommack, who announced that he would retire at the season’s end.
“A toughness that he’ll bring to our kids,” Freeze said of what he will look for in a replacement for Wommack. “Energy. Obviously, he has got to fit our core values in who we are. But mostly, toughness and a physicality, that he demands that energy from them and that they work every day.”
Even with a new coordinator in place, how do the Rebels improve defensively?
The nonexistent linebacking play coupled with injuries and youth on the back end of the defense in the secondary proved to be a perfect storm. The Rebels simply couldn’t stop anyone. They gave up 34 points per game and 2,971 yards rushing to opponents on the year.
Ole Miss returns a lot of young guys in the secondary that took their lumps this year but also gained valuable experience. But there is no immediate answer at linebacker, and recruiting amidst the haze this investigation has created won’t be easy either. It also loses the likes of Issac Gross, Fadol Brown, D.J. Jones and possibly even junior Marquis Haynes on the defensive line.
“We will have to look at everyone and everybody. We were not good,” Freeze said. “When you can’t stop their base stuff, we have got to figure out is it process? Is it people? What exactly is it? We have a lot of young kids over there that have potential to be good. We have some good ones here that we redshirted. But we have got to go recruit better and do an exhaustive study on our whole entire staff and system.”
Quarterback Shea Patterson felt the aftershock of Ole Miss’ injury-riddled season by becoming the starting quarterback in the last three games. Freeze got a glimpse into the future by pulling his redshirt, and Patterson played well considering the situation he was thrown into, but he also played like a true freshman with little to no experience at times.
“It’s just knowing situations. Most of it is going to come because he understands the game,” Freeze said. “He moved the ball effectively, and I thought he had a lot of drops last week and some tonight that would make him play even better. So I am satisfied at this point. I think he is a good piece to build the future around offensively.”
It will be an offseason of uncertainty. But if there is one thing that is certain: It’s that Ole Miss has to find the answer to a lot of questions, and this will be the most difficult, yet important, offseason in Freeze’s time at Ole Miss.