Ole Miss Football: Hugh Freeze's 5 Biggest Concerns Post-Spring Practice
Times at Ole Miss haven't been this good since a guy named Eli was tossing touchdown passes.
Spring football's a wrap for Hugh Freeze's Rebels, the campus looks magnificent and the coeds are power walking again in Oxford. That's what you call a winning combination.
Are you ready?
Rebels fans surely are, and they've got good reason to be excited about year two under Freeze.
Between a productive spring practice (despite being hit by the injury bug) and the pending arrival of a truly epic recruiting class this summer, Ole Miss coaches, players and fans can't wait for the Rebels' ESPN opener at Vanderbilt on August 29.
However, there are always concerns to be had by coaches following spring camp.
Let's take a look at Freeze's five biggest concerns post-spring practice.
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports
Time is all the Ole Miss Rebels need to heal. Fortunately, now they've got it.
Rebel coaches knew QB Bo Wallace (shoulder surgery) would be unavailable this spring, but they certainly didn't plan on losing DE C.J. Johnson (broken fibula) and TE Christian Morgan (torn meniscus) to spring injuries.
When Morgan sustained a torn meniscus late in spring camp, Freeze decided enough was enough.
Coaches want to see what players can do in spring practice, but mounting injuries quickly grow old.
Therefore, Darone Bailey, Issac Gross, Chase Hughes, C.J. Johnson, Patrick Junen, Collins Moore, Christian Morgan, Aaron Morris, Vince Sanders and Charles Sawyer were all among players held out of the Grove Bowl as an injury precaution.
Wallace, Johnson and Morgan are all expected to return healthy before the fall, but right now Ole Miss simply needs to steer clear of the injury bug and put a healthy squad on the field this summer.
4. Nick "Snoop" Brassell
Nick "Snoop" Brassell needs Ole Miss, and Ole Miss needs Nick Brassell.
After faltering off the field under Houston Nutt two years ago, the talented SEC athlete was declared academically ineligible at the end of the 2011 season. It certainly wasn't a decision that sat well with the young man, but he appears to be tackling life with a new conviction after spending last season at East Mississippi Community College.
Hugh Freeze afforded Brassell with a chance at redemption, and he's making the most of it thus far.
In his first stint at Ole Miss, No. 2 played offense, defense and special teams for a team that ultimately went 2-10 overall. Moreover, he was the first Rebel to start on offense and defense in the same season since 1988. Oh yeah, he was also a true freshman in 2011. He's good, real good.
This time around Brassell will primarily play in the secondary (and maybe field some punts). By not having to play on both sides of the ball, his talents should shine even brighter this season.
The kid's got NFL written all over him; now he just has to stay on top of things in the classroom and on the football field. If he can do that between now and August 29, both he and Freeze will benefit in 2013.
Freeze's biggest concern right now? It's still only late April.
3. Punt Return Team Production
USA TODAY Sports
Among a boatload of special teams troubles last year, Ole Miss particularly struggled on punt returns.
Having gone from 2-10 in 2011 (Houston Nutt) to 7-6 in 2012 (Hugh Freeze), the Rebels have a chance to build upon their successes even more this season. However, special teams play must improve dramatically before the fall if year two of the Freeze era is to be even better.
Redshirt senior K Andrew Ritter and P Tyler Campbell return in 2013, so the Rebels' kicking and punting games should be vastly improved with the help of these two veterans.
What Ole Miss must continue to figure out right now is who is best suited to return punts this fall?
Over spring training, Nick Brassell, Trae Elston, Quadarias "Q" Mireles and Jeff Scott each received looks on punt return teams. While all four of these athletes are capable of handling the job, the ideal situation would be to primarily count on just one of two of the young men.
With Jeff Scott expected to shoulder an even bigger load in the backfield in 2013, the diminutive back may stay healthier not having to expose himself to open field hits on punt returns. As for Elston, his services will again be called upon in the secondary quite a bit during his sophomore campaign.
That leaves Brassell and Mireles, which are both among the most talented players on the entire roster.
The challenge for Freeze and company prior to opening at Vandy is simply to pick their top weapons.
2. Summer Arrival of "The Class"
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
It seems like yesterday that Hugh Freeze inked ESPN's No. 5 recruiting class in 2013.
However, national signing day actually took place back on February 6. It's been a while, folks.
The Rebels received a good deal of attention after their turnaround campaign in 2012, but the arrival of their 2013 recruiting class this summer will draw attention unlike Oxford's seen in quite some time.
Led by ESPN's No.1 overall prospect, DE Robert Nkemdiche, Freeze will also welcome highly-touted recruits WR Laquon Treadwell, OL Laremy Tunsil and S Tony Conner. However, the star-studded class goes far beyond those four young men.
There are plenty of 4-star players capable of making an early splash, not to mention several potential hidden gems within the stout recruiting class. It's a class sure to be talked about for a very long time.
You're probably asking how this presents a challenge for Freeze?
With as much hype as both the signees and program as a whole will receive this summer, the coaching staff must prepare to keep players new and old mentally focused despite outside distractions.
As long as they can "win the day" each practice as Freeze likes to say, everything should be just fine in the land of Hotty Toddy. Actually, it should be pretty damn good.
1. QB Bo Wallace's Backup
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports
Bo knows quarterbacking, but Bo doesn't know reserve quarterbacking.
In fact, I'm not sure anyone around the Rebel program knows much about the reserve quarterback spot.
While coaches and fans alike hoped that a front-runner would emerge behind starter Bo Wallace this spring, unfortunately very little progress was made. Nevertheless, there's still time for a reserve to be born.
The bottom line is reserve QB questions remain as the Johnny Rebs head into summer camp.
Over the spring, reserve QB candidates Barry Brunetti and Maikhail Miller looked pedestrian at best. Searching for a better clue in the Grove Bowl, two men further down the depth chart (Robert Ratliff and Khalid Purnell) even got some work under center. In the end, spring camp closed with very few answers.
Enter true freshman QBs Ryan Buchanan and Devante Kincade.
When these two talented kids join the mix this summer, the battle for the No. 2 spot will reach an absolute fever pitch. At this point, there's simply no telling which player will eventually emerge as Wallace's heir apparent. Conventional wisdom would say redshirt the true freshmen, but either is capable of winning the reserve job in 2013.
It's vitally important to Ole Miss' 2013 campaign that at least one player rises to the occasion.
Wallace will be playing on an operated shoulder this season, and coaches will take nothing for granted. The Brett Favre throwback can light up the scoreboard this year if healthy, but without him the Rebels offense becomes much less potent.
The single-biggest challenge for Hugh Freeze right now: pray that a leader emerges this summer.