Change is something Hugh Freeze has been fortunate enough to largely avoid in his young coaching career. But he also understands that he lives in a world where instant results are expected and past successes are quickly erased from memory when 5-7 season-type struggles come along. Which is why he found himself standing behind a lectern Friday morning, introducing the first two major staff changes he’s had to make in his time at Ole Miss.
“In my tenure from Lambuth to Arkansas State to here, I have had very little change,” Freeze said. “That is something that I am proud of, but there comes a time where certain change is a good thing, and I think this is the case.”
Freeze officially announced that Sam Houston State’s Phil Longo will be his offensive coordinator and Wesley McGriff will return to Oxford by way of the New Orleans Saints, and most recently Auburn, to become the second defensive coordinator of Freeze’s tenure.
On the surface, the hires seem to be unproven. This is McGriff’s first chance at being a coordinator in major college football, as it will be Longo’s first experience in the FBS in general.
Aside from that, Freeze identified his team’s most glaring weaknesses on both sides of the football and attacked them directly. Offensively, there were three main concepts Freeze wanted to strengthen.
“There were really three critical areas that I felt like we needed to improve on to take us to the next level, and that was third down efficiency, red zone efficiency in scoring touchdowns and running the football within the structure of how we play in our tempo offense,” Freeze said. “As I searched through all of the candidates and all of the guys that had interest in this position, it was very clear to me that the one that had the best understanding and fit with us was Phil Longo.”
He pointed out the eye-popping numbers Longo was able to put up with the Bearkats, like 49.5 points per game or 547.3 yards of offense in each contest. But he looked deeper than that, citing Longo’s offense scored touchdowns 80 percent of the time in the red zone, converted nearly 70 percent of its third downs and rushed the football for nearly 10,000 yards in three seasons.
“That is something that is very important that we improve on within the structure of who we are, and taking what he’s done is going to allow us to improve in all three of those areas,” Freeze said.
Freeze has only had one 1,000-yard rusher in his time at Ole Miss, and the Rebels converted 40 percent of third down attempts last season.
Freeze is also handing over the controls to the offense to Longo. It will be his system and his terminology that Shea Patterson and a young Rebel offense will operate under, with Freeze helping to formulate a plan each week based off that.
“Phil is bringing in his terminology, but we are so similar. We love his terminology; we think it kind of puts us in structure. We had gotten a little too spread out with too many ideas, maybe,” Freeze said.
Longo comes from the Mike Leach tree, implementing his own wrinkles into the air-raid style with perhaps a heavier focus on running the ball than usual. He’s known for making life simpler for quarterbacks through pre-snap reads, responsibilities and his terminology, while constantly looking to learn and add more to his system.
“The great thing about Phil is that he is the ultimate learner. He wants to learn. He’ll drive eight hours. (Texas Tech coach Kliff) Kingsbury told me stories about him driving and sleeping in his car to talk ball and get new things. We are going to have a great offensive staff,” Freeze said.
Given Freeze’s offensive background, the two will work closely together, but he made it clear “it will be his (Longo’s) offense to call.” He likes the structure that the scheme brings, and he thinks Ole Miss may have gotten too complex and spread out, causing its offensive identity to fade.
Defensively, Ole Miss needed energy. A group that was throttled by opponents in a multitude of ways needed a change. Dave Wommack’s style that helped propel Ole Miss to national relevance had grown stale. Freeze stayed within his comfort zone, while also bringing in a guy with both SEC and NFL experience in McGriff.
“One name just kept coming back to me, and the comfort level I have with Wesley McGriff is very important to me. The energy he will bring to reviving our defense is going to be vital,” Freeze said.
McGriff will bring a four-three scheme along with his energy and will attempt to revamp a young Ole Miss defense. But he and Freeze noted that it will be multiple.
“We’re going to run the defense that is stopping every offense that plays football in America,” McGriff said.
“Here’s the biggest thing: I have a lot of ideas from my past experiences in what we will do on defense. But I think it is all about the guys in the room. You’ve got to formulate a plan based on talent that is in the room. We’ve got to do a good assessment of who we have in the building at what position, then you have to develop a plan that our assistant coaches are very comfortable coaching with.”
With the way defense in college football has grown in complexity in terms of fits and defensive fronts, the flexibility and simplicity of McGriff’s scheme appealed to Freeze. McGriff also brings NFL experience, which he says helped him learn to break down offenses more so than before.
It’s McGriff’s first chance at being a coordinator in one of the toughest leagues in the country, which Freeze hopes will spark even more energy that McGriff will bring with his plan that helped Auburn grow into one of the top defenses in college football. The Tigers were fierce against the run with a menacing defensive line and gave up very few explosive plays, two things that the Rebels struggled mightily with in 2016.
“He obviously knows that this is his big chance, and we will be locked together in this endeavor. Not only that, but his knowledge and his plan,” Freeze said. “I like that it is simple. Allows our kids to play, not think.”
Freeze’s first stumble at Ole Miss from 10 wins to just five spurned cries for change, and transition quickly followed. Is there risk to hiring an offensive coordinator with no FBS experience and a first-time defensive coordinator? Yes, sure there is. The fact that both coaches are relatively unproven was a risk Freeze was willing to account for when trying to tend to his team’s weaknesses.
Defensively, Freeze looked for energy to wipe away the staleness and simplicity to aid in the development of his young group. McGriff brings just that.
Longo has a track record that shows a formula to improve Ole Miss’ efficiency on third down as well as establish a running game despite his pass-oriented system.
“The difference is I believe in order to win championships at any level you have to be able to run the football,” Longo said. “I want to run the ball downhill. I want a very physical aspect of this offense.”
Freeze identified his program’s biggest deficiencies and was willing to trade experience for what he believes are the two guys best equipped to turn those into strengths.
Now, time will tell if the results will come as quickly as they are demanded. But Freeze seemingly put the appropriate pieces in place to help make that happen.