OXFORD, Miss. — Coach Hugh Freeze has just about mastered the self-effacing, aw-shucks attitude that has helped his Ole Miss football program escape lofty expectations.
There’s too much talent on the Rebels roster to avoid that now.
Freeze said Friday at Ole Miss’ annual media day that the goal is to compete in the Southeastern Conference Western Division.
The Rebels return 15 starters, including third-year starting quarterback Bo Wallace. A talented sophomore class — including offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, receiver Laquon Treadwell and defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche — is expected to be a huge contributor after an encouraging freshman season.
The Rebels open the season Aug. 28 against Boise State in Atlanta.
Ole Miss does have some question marks on the roster, especially at offensive line, where the Rebels are trying to replace three starters. Freeze looks forward to the upcoming position battles during the next four weeks, but said it’s also important to keep his relatively thin roster healthy.
“It’s a quandary in my mind that I go through every single day,” Freeze said. “You want to be fast and physical, like we were in the spring. But now I feel like we have a team that can be good — and hopefully go from good to great. But everything changes if you have injuries.”
Ole Miss looks especially deep on defense, where nine starters return. Senior linebacker Serderius Bryant led the Rebels with 78 tackles last season, including 12½ for a loss.
“It’s crazy how much better the team has changed from my freshman year until now,” Bryant said. “I really feel like the team can be great.”
Bryant has seen steady improvement since he arrived on campus three years ago. The Rebels were 2-10 during his freshman season, going winless in the SEC during coach Houston Nutt’s final season.
But Freeze arrived and the recruiting quickly picked up. Now the roster finally resembles one with SEC-level talent.
Nkemdiche might be the best example of that transformation. The 6-foot-4, 280-pounder was the consensus No. 1 recruit in the nation in 2013 and had a solid freshman season, making 34 tackles, including eight for a loss.
Last season he split time between defensive end and defensive tackle, but now he’s been moved to tackle full-time. He said an offseason worth of film study and working on his technique should lead to better results.
“I can’t wait until we can actually do it in a game,” he said.
Ole Miss comes to camp with relatively few eligibility issues. Offensive lineman Christian Morris and receiver Damore’ea Stringfellow are still waiting for word if they will receive an NCAA transfer waiver so they can play immediately.
Freeze did say cornerback Tee Shepard has been academically cleared to play. The 6-foot-1, 195-pound sophomore should help the Rebels’ secondary immediately.
“I expect Tee to come in and hopefully be the lock-down corner that we may have been missing,” Freeze said. “He’s got the size and the strength and the speed and he’s physical. I love his demeanor — the guy is smiling all the time. He’s excited to be here. I like our depth at cornerback and that’s the first time I can say that.”