After an up-and-down season marked by defensive struggles, Rebels football may have finally turned a corner. With new defensive pieces paired with an equally young offense, fans in Oxford have plenty to look forward to next year. With spring practices underway, head coach Hugh Freeze has already seen improvements over last season.
“I love the energy of the defense,” Freeze said. “They were flying to the football, playing physical.”
Ole Miss seems to have always been known for hard-nosed defensive play, an increasingly rare attribute over the course of last season. Now, that “Landshark” style looks to be back and better than ever.
“I thought the defense was extremely physical down there today, and I was real pleased,” Freeze said.
Breeland Speaks, a 6-foot 3-inch defensive tackle out of Jackson, hopes to play an even bigger role on the Rebels’ defensive line this season. Speaks, throughout the offseason, has been focusing on improving the technical aspects of his play.
“I’ve been trying to get this technique down. I’m playing with a different technique, and I think it’s starting to come along,” Speaks said. “The more we practice, the more I get the opportunities to see myself actually using the technique.”
Last year, with late losses to Florida State and Alabama shining through as examples, the Rebels struggled to make stops in the red zone. Freeze spoke extensively about his focus on red zone drills during spring practice, something he felt his defensive unit excelled at on Tuesday.
“Defensively, you have to hold people to field goals down there,” Freeze said. “I was real pleased with the defensive portion.”
Part of the reason Freeze and the Ole Miss coaching staff have put such an emphasis on goal-line play is due to the youth and inexperience of the squad. Physicality is something the Rebels have had issues with in the past, and so far, these sessions have shed optimism on the aggression and drive of these young Rebels.
“We have to become a more physical defense and the offensive line has to be real physical down there,” Freeze said, “I think today the defense was very physical and I was real pleased.”
While the defense has been particularly powerful this spring, the Rebels’ offense is equally exciting. With the addition of offensive coordinator Phil Longo, Freeze will look to focus on a high-tempo offense. Returning sophomore starters Shea Patterson and Van Jefferson, along with veteran receiver Markell Pack, prove the Ole Miss pass game has real potential.
“I think [Van] is becoming a nice leader in that room, and he and Markell both are having really sound springs,” Freeze said. “Markell really seems kind of like a new kid, so I’m pleased with both of those guys, and Van has been a great leader.”