How effective can Hugh Freeze's offense be against Manny Diaz's defense?
Peter Bean of Burnt Orange Nation and I are resuming our conversation which began earlier this week. Perhaps you saw it here? If you didn't, click that link and read it, then head here for the beginning of this second installment of our conversation leading up to the Ole Miss Rebels v. Texas Longhorns game this weekend. At this point, we've moved past the Grove, the Square, and the pretention of the Ole Miss fan base and onto the actual reason we're all here: football. Enjoy.
So let's just start at the top, because things did not end well for Houston Nutt, and he left behind a bit of a mess.
Were you a fan of the Hugh Freeze hire when it was made? I've been impressed with the job he's done since taking the reins, and he certainly seems to have done well in getting this team ready for the early season. I would imagine that Ole Miss fans have started to view the hire in a different light given the way that he's handled things so far.
Few Ole Miss fans were impressed with Freeze when he was hired, and with good reason.
Freeze's biggest disadvantage at winning the hearts of Ole Miss fans is that he was a recruiting coordinator and assistant coach under Ed Orgeron. He was a guy that most of us were already familiar with and, in that case, a "safe" or "easy" hire. In addition, his association with Coach Orgeron had him behind the eight ball from day one regarding fan perceptions of him.
Furthermore, it seemed to be a bit of an insult for our program to go the safe or easy route to make a hire that had potential to be something bigger, especially after going the safe and easy route to hire Houston Nutt. Fans were hoping that maybe our athletics department would just throw all the money they had at Mike Leach or Rich Rodriguez, for example. Instead, they hired a guy who was basically begging for the job.
But I think that last point is exactly why he was hired. I think the athletics department and boosters made a potential long-term decision by hiring Hugh Freeze. They decided against hiring a mercenary or a journeyman for a coach in favor of hiring a guy who actually wants to be at Ole Miss. Hugh Freeze's parents went to Ole Miss, and he himself grew up just one county northwest Oxford. North Mississippi is where is family is from and that is where he wants his family to be. If he does a good job for us, the chances of him leaving for something else are pretty slim.
Considering that, I have warmed up to the hire. And as you've pointed out, he has shown a real knack for game preparation and playcalling not demonstrated by our previous couple of head coaches. He has also made some incredible moves for us on the recruiting trail, if you consider the season we are coming off of.
Speaking of Freeze's playcalling, I read somewhere that Mack Brown compared his hurry-up offense to those types of offenses Texas is likely to see in Big Twelve play. Would you agree with that sentiment? I ask because our players are saying that Texas' defense is good enough to serve as a "primer" for SEC play of sorts. Could the same be said for Hugh Freeze's offense as it relates to Texas' defense?
I think that's a perfectly fair assessment, but I'll be honest: I expected that when Texas played Ole Miss the Rebels would be a subpar offense still struggling to get comfortable with Freeze's style. But here we are, and Ole Miss appears to be significantly further along the growth curve than I expected -- thanks largely to Bo Wallace, who looks like he's going to win a lot of football games over the next three years.
Over the last decade, the Big 12 has been one of the most prolific and innovative conferences in the country with respect to offense -- in large part because of the coaches that schools have hired, but also, I think, because the conference has been second-to-none in terms of having elite quarterbacks: Vince Young, Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy, Robert Griffin III, Brandon Weeden, to name just a few, and despite losing three QBs to the first round of last year's NFL Draft, the Big 12 is still the top conference at the position in the country again in 2012, with top-to-bottom quality and three Heisman contenders at the top (WVU's Geno Smith, K-State's Collin Klein, and OU's Landry Jones). And the styles that Big 12 offenses play are very much as quarterback-centric as you would expect. Teams spread the field, hurry up, put a lot on the QB in terms of diagnosing plays, and pass the hell out of the ball.
My sense is that Hugh Freeze's offense is a good bit more rush-oriented than what most Big 12 teams are doing these days, but I do think that it's fair to say that the styles have some meaningful similarities. And in that sense it's a perfect ramp up to conference play, now that the Rebels have a quarterback who can make the defense pay. With LSU and Alabama, you're worried about whether you can match them physically in the trenches; the challenge for Texas on Saturday will be much more like that the team faces week in and out in the Big 12. Part of that is Freeze's style, but the other big factor is that Wallace is so good on his feet, and you have to worry about him making a great play even after you've shut down what the offense intended to do. That's a skill that's not only dangerous, but can be extremely deflating to a defense.
Nor can Texas fans take much solace in the fact that Wallace is a sophomore, making his third start under a new coach. Wallace lit up the JuCo record books last year, and he spent a year with Freeze at Arkansas State before heading to Mississippi Community College. So yeah, here we are and though I may not have expected it back in March, I'm anxious about Wallace and Ole Miss in ways similar to how I'll feel when Texas faces Nick Florence and Baylor.
Tell Texas fans a little bit more about Wallace and how he's looked through his first two games. I have to imagine that Ole Miss fans are surprised at how competitive they suddenly find themselves thinking this team can be in 2012.
It truly has been surprising to see Bo Wallace play as well as he has the past two weeks. Not only does he seem to have a good understanding of the playbook and offensive identity Hugh Freeze is trying to establish, but he has also demonstrated himself to be a good decision maker and athlete.
What is remarkable about his in-game performances thus far is that he is showing all of us something that we did not at all see during practices. Maybe he shines in actual game time in a way he does not on the practice field, or maybe the teams we have played have been just that significantly overmatched, but either way, few of us who saw him during offseason workouts and scrimmages would guess he would have 573 yards of total offense and seven total touchdowns after two weeks. He is moving using his feet well to set up his throws. He is making good choices on option plays. And he is generally locating his passes very well. He does have less than ideal velocity on his passes, but that has yet to come back to bite him.
Of course, maybe that just has to do with the competition played and the incredibly low expectations of the Ole Miss fan base right now. Regardless, we're surprised and excited to see him doing so well. And the fact that he's just a redshirt sophomore is very, very encouraging.
What type of pass rush should Rebel fans look for against Texas? What about the Longhorns secondary? Of course what we will see this week will be much more talented and athletic than what we have seen over the past two weeks, but what should Ole Miss fans expect to Texas utilize to defend against Wallace and the hurry-up offense?
Along with Wallace's playmaking ability, the hurry up aspect of the Freeze attack is probably the biggest neutralizer to what is a very fast, physical, deep, and talented Texas defense. This unit is already very good, but like last year's group they're only going to get stronger and stronger as they year goes on -- in part because there's a good bit of coordination required by Manny Diaz's defense, and Texas lost three seniors from last year's unit that were the ones to set all the pieces in place. I can't help but worry a little bit about the hurry up causing some problems for Texas at times.
If not, though -- if this group is at peak performance? You can expect to see a defense that's right up there in the same neighborhood as LSU and Alabama. Like Nick Saban's best units, this Texas defense smothers you with a devastating secondary and a constant barrage of pressure from a variety of angles. While Saban is the undisputed master, Texas defensive coordinator Manny Diaz is a brilliantly promising radical whose unorthodox background and approach have liberated him in some incredibly interesting and useful ways. (Or confusing, if you're on the other side of it.)
When Will Muschamp left to take the Florida job, the question among UT fans was not whether his replacement would be a downgrade, but by how much; making it all the more remarkable that Manny Diaz is not only the most wildly beloved assistant that Texas has had in the Mack Brown era, but Longhorns fans -- without taking anything away from Muschamp, or their feelings about him -- find themselves oddly thankful that Muschamp's departure paved the way for Diaz's arrival. His philosophy is to fortify and own the middle territory of the football field, protect against big plays, mix and match resources to bring pressure from every conceivable look, and force the opponent to beat the defense by successfully executing low-percentage plays and sustaining drives. His concern about an 8 yard gain is subservient to his concern about a touchdown, and he calculates that his attack can get you into a 4th and Punt (or Field Goal, if it comes to that) before you can get to the end zone. And most of the time, he's right.
Beyond the variety of looks that Ole Miss will get from Diaz's defensive attack, the other key component of this year's defense is, as I mentioned, the secondary. Both Carrington Byndom and Quandre Diggs are flat out ballers at the corners -- outstanding in coverage and great at making plays on the ball -- while at safety, Kenny Vaccaro and Adrian Phillips are both tremendously athletic and physical, with keen, natural football instincts that make both fearsomely disruptive players. All four of these guys love to get physical, love to hit, and are great in support of the run - without giving up an inch in terms of their ability to cover. These guys are why I think Bo Wallace's ability to make some plays with his feet when nothing is there will be so important for Ole Miss.
Let me ask you, though: who else's offensive performance do you see as critical for Ole Miss on Saturday?
Head on over to Burnt Orange Nation for the answer, plus the rest of our discussion about Saturday night's big game.