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July 16, 2013

SEC Media Days: Ole Miss preparing to play against backdrop of big expectations

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

HOOVER, Ala. — Ole Miss is in a difficult place, but a good one.

Coming off a surprise 7-6 season in 2012 and adding a highly-ranked recruiting class in February, expectations are high heading into Year 2 of coach Hugh Freeze's tenure.

Coming off a surprise 7-6 season in 2012 and adding a highly-ranked recruiting class in February, expectations are high heading into Year 2 of coach Hugh Freeze’s tenure.

The Rebels were one of the biggest surprises in the Southeastern Conference last season, finishing with a 7-6 overall record just one year after going 2-10. Ole Miss snapped a 16-game conference losing streak stretching back nearly two years when it beat Auburn 41-20 last October. Things only got better from there, as it defeated its arch-rival, Mississippi State, in the Egg Bowl and went on to capture a victory in the BBVA Compass Bowl over Pittsburgh. On top of that, the Rebels signed one of the most highly-touted recruiting classes in the country in February, headlined by the consensus top prospect in the land, Georgia defensive end Robert Nkemdiche.

Now comes the hard part: Living up to the outsized expectations fans and media alike have heaped upon them for the coming season.

“The expectations that are coming now with our program, I’m very careful,” Rebels coach Hugh Freeze said on Tuesday at SEC Media Days. “I told every group that I went to this spring, I tell our team quite often, that unrealistic expectations, they always produce frustration. I don’t care in what area of life that you’re in, if you have an unreal expectation and it does not come to pass, you get very frustrated.”

And to have the kind of success Ole Miss attained in Year 1, it never hurts to have luck on your side. The Rebels had it in abundance, as they had the same five players on the offensive line start every game last season.

Freeze knew how fortunate his team was to avoid major injuries in 2012, and had that point hammered home this spring.

“We had some injuries this spring,” he said, “and it reminded me we’re not quite where we need to be depth chart-wise for this league.”

One of those battling the injury-bug is starting quarterback Bo Wallace. The junior signal-caller underwent surgery on his shoulder in January and has been rehabbing ever since. He used the time he wasn’t cleared to throw to become more knowledgeable about the Rebels’ offense and their opponents this fall, watching copious amounts of film. It also helped him work out some of the things he noticed were wrong with his throwing motion.

But he admitted that not being able to get out and go full-speed for months was tough.

“The first two months, I wasn’t able to do anything. Those first two months, there were some depressing days,” he said. “When I had to go in for rehab, I couldn’t really do much because of my stitches and things like that. So those were some depressing times. But I’m very happy with the way it turned out.”

One lesson Wallace learned through the experience was when to rein himself in when it came to tucking and running with the ball.

“I just have to pick my spots,” he said. “Obviously, I don’t want to go through another injury like this, so I think I can help my team out more being out there and healthy than trying to get one or two more yards and getting banged up.”

But one thing the injury didn’t change was his attitude. Despite coming into the season as the unquestioned starter, Wallace is of the same mind-set that he was last year, when he was ensnared in a competition against Barry Brunetti.

“I don’t think there’s a huge difference in it, because last year when I came in, guys were like, ‘Can he play in this league? Can he play in the SEC?'” Wallace said. “Now it’s, ‘Can he play in this league now after his shoulder injury?’ So for me, it’s the same chip that I’ve always had on my shoulder, something that I’ll probably always play with. I’m not even looking like it like I’m the starter. Those guys (the backups) are going to push me, so I’m going in trying to be the best quarterback I can every day.”

If he can play up to that potential, Ole Miss might just meet the lofty goals people have for this season — and possibly even surpass them. And those aspirations have permeated through the entire city of Oxford, Miss. Senior linebacker Mike Marry said he can’t go anywhere around town without people stopping him to talk about the team.

“Everybody is slowing you down and wanting to talk to you, wanting you to sign things,” he said. “They’re just excited about the season. I think the people around us are more excited about the season than the team.”

But Marry knows the wins won’t just be given to the Rebels. Heck, they might not come at all. No, he doesn’t necessarily tell fans to temper expectations.

He just reminds them they’ll do the best they can.

No more, no less.

“We’re playing for (more) than just ourselves,” he said. “Know that we’ve got you in mind when we’re out there playing, too.”

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