After the annual Grove Bowl scrimmage on Saturday, head coach Hugh Freeze remained cautiously optimistic about next fall, despite a subpar defensive performance.
The intra-squad scrimmage finished as expected, with the offense dominating the defense in a 31-29 win. Scoring the game was a complicated affair; Freeze gave the defense a 27-0 lead but only allowed it to score off safeties or interceptions that led directly to touchdowns.
“I thought the right team won today,” Freeze said. “The offense controlled most of the scrimmage, but we have a long way to go defensively.”
With Shea Patterson completing 21 of 30 passes for 341 yards, good enough for two touchdowns, as well as exceptional performances from receivers AJ Brown, Van Jefferson and DK Metcalf, the Rebels’ defense struggled to come up with stops. Even more worrying, Patterson found great success launching deep balls to Metcalf and Brown, who each sidestepped cornerbacks and safeties on their way to the end zone.
“You can’t miss tackles and give up explosive plays and still expect to win games,” Freeze said. “We know that and have experienced that for a year, and it must get corrected.”
Newly hired defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff agreed with Freeze, noting success in 2017 will boil down to consistency. With injuries impacting depth and a weaker than usual 2017 recruiting class, McGriff and Freeze are feeling the pressure.
“Working on technique and fundamentals will help build our confidence,” McGriff said. “Ultimately, our biggest concern is just staying healthy.”
Newly hired offensive coordinator Phil Longo, formerly of Sam Houston State and the architect behind college football’s most effective offense last year, will hope to revitalize an impressive but predictable Ole Miss offense. His “keep it simple” mantra will keep the Rebels’ playbook thin and easy to master. With Chad Kelly and Evan Engram, among others, hoping to get drafted later this month, Longo’s system will help younger players learn the system.
Freeze’s new hires bring unique talents and abilities to a program faced with a growing mountain of NCAA allegations. With a postseason bowl game out of the question and an ever-increasingly talented SEC to compete in, Freeze’s team refuses to lose focus.
“I couldn’t be more pleased with how our kids have handled difficult, adverse situations, and the energy and passion our new staff has brought is really good,” Freeze said. “What we start doing now is making sure we’re working as hard as we can and making great decisions between now and fall camp.”
While Freeze held most of his cards close on Saturday, signs of life persist. The coaching staff is hesitant, however, to tempt fate. The Rebels know there is still plenty of work to be done.
“There are other teams who are making the same choices, but ours have to be greater,” Freeze said. “It has to be a greater commitment and a greater sacrifice and a greater toughness in this offseason to get us where we want to go.”