Perhaps the largest question mark looming over coach Mike Bianco and his Ole Miss team is how the talented but untested freshmen will respond to the national spotlight and competition that comes with playing SEC baseball.
With only eight upperclassmen, compared to an overwhelming 28 underclassmen, Bianco and his veteran players will be tasked with developing and nurturing the freshman class, many of whom will play key roles for the team this season.
Starting with one of the most highly touted true freshmen on an already-stacked lineup is Grae Kessinger, a fourth-generation Rebel and Errol Robinson’s successor at shortstop. The 19-year-old from Oxford High will look to make an immediate impact both offensively and defensively.
“He’s a great athlete, a great shortstop. He knows what to do over there and is more than ready,” junior second baseman Tate Blackman said, casting aside any doubt on the freshman’s readiness.
Kessinger, among others in his freshman class, has been led and taught by the more experienced players like Blackman and senior third baseman Colby Bortles. Kessinger, Blackman and Bortles make up three-quarters of the infield, followed by freshman Cole Zabowski at first.
Zabowski’s spot isn’t necessarily a lock—Bianco stated that Chase Cockrell, a junior college transfer, and Michael Fitzsimmons, a sophomore who played in 43 games last year and started 29, could also see time at first base. Either way, Zabowski will certainly see his fair share of action on first and round out an infield composed of two true freshmen.
In the outfield, Bianco is looking at Thomas Dillard, another true freshman, to start in left field.
Dillard ranked as the top catcher in the state in high school, but made the transition from behind the plate to the outfield this fall. The 6 feet tall, 215-pound freshman looks, as Bianco describes, like a catcher.
“[He’s] a guy that, when you look at him, he looks like a catcher. He’s a strong guy who looks like his position is going to be behind the plate.”
Despite that appearance, Bianco assures that Dillard possesses the speed and arm to excel in the outfield, as well as a bat too good to lose in the rotation. Dillard, a switch hitter, has big league power from both sides of the plate and the athleticism to play nearly any position on the field. Bianco and the Rebels should expect to see Dillard at a variety of positions and succeeding at each one. Ole Miss is extremely deep at catcher, and Dillard’s move to left field doesn’t mean he won’t catch at some point but is more a testament to Ole Miss needing to keep his bat in the lineup somewhere.
Rounding out the group of true freshmen expected to start opening day will be the man that will be behind the plate opening day in Cooper Johnson. Even with incredible depth at the position, Johnson won over coaches during the fall with his game-changing abilities. Defensively, Bianco noted, Cooper proved that his arm and quick release could influence the game more than anyone else behind the plate.
The freshman catcher isn’t solely defined by his defensive play, however. Over the fall, he showed an ability to hit and could prove an asset offensively. Still, Johnson’s strong arm and athleticism behind the plate should have opposing teams worrying the most. All the praise isn’t to say Johnson’s position is safe, though. Bianco also pointed at Dillard and sophomore Nick Fortes as potentially filling the spot throughout the season. The position will see plenty of competition between young and highly talented teammates.
Once glance at Mike Bianco’s lineup headed into Friday’s opener against East Carolina will show how much the coach trusts his younger players. With true freshmen starting in the infield, outfield and behind the plate, Bianco and the rest of his team will have no choice but to trust that these first-year players can handle the pressure and talent of college baseball.