Ole Miss head football coach Hugh Freeze is tired of talking about his team’s offseason. He’s tired of talking about fall camp.
In spite of having seven starters and 25 lettermen returning from last season’s nation-leading scoring defense (16.0 ppg allowed), Freeze is still ready to see the makeup of his team’s DNA once the season actually begins.
“It is our opportunity to show what our DNA will be for this year’s team. There’s never a duplication of that DNA, regardless of how many you have returning,” Freeze said at Monday’s first weekly press conference of the 2015-16 college football season. “This team is unique, with a unique makeup. We get to see the first version of it this Saturday.”
Chad Kelly set to start against UT-Martin
Freeze isn’t sure how his team will perform in the first game, but he is sure about one thing; he has a starting quarterback—for now—going into the 17th-ranked Rebels’ home season-opener against FCS school UT-Martin.
Chad Kelly, a transfer from East Mississippi Community College, was named the starter under center only for week one, and Freeze made it clear that things could change. Last season for the Lions, Kelly threw for 3,906 yards and 47 touchdowns while completing 66.9 percent (303 of 453) of his passes.
“I know who is going to take the first snap, but I don’t know who the starter for the season is going to be. That competition is still ongoing,” Freeze said at the beginning of the week. “I don’t want to be quoted today that it is locked in stone. It is a very close competition. I like all three. All three of them have different qualities that they bring.”
Freeze knows his team is just as excited as he is for them to play football after an entire offseason of built-up motivation, and Freeze has prepared his team for opening week as if the first game of the season was against a top-ranked opponent. Freeze likes to treat each opponent the same.
Skyhawks have experienced coach, 13 returning starters
Freeze has the utmost respect for Skyhawks head coach Jason Simpson, who has been UT-Martin’s football head coach for 10 years. That is the longest tenure for a head football coach in the Ohio Valley Conference.
“UT-Martin Coach Jason Simpson is a wonderful man. He and I worked some camps together when I was at Lambuth up in the mountains at FCA camp,” Freeze said. “I have tremendous respect for Simpson and the way he does things. He coaches a very balanced football team. I believe they averaged 212 yards rushing and 214 yards passing last year. That is extremely balanced.”
UT-Martin is accustomed to playing high-profiled programs in the regular season. Last season, the Skyhawks played two Southeastern Conference schools (No. 1 Mississippi State and Kentucky) and finished both games with over 350 yards of total offense.
UT-Martin averaged 427 yards in total offense last season.
Like Freeze, Simpson has a lot of experience coming back for a Skyhawks team that finished the 2014 season 6-6 overall with a 5-3 conference record in the OVC. UT-Martin is returning six starters on offense and seven on defense. Senior quarterback Jarod Neal returns after posting 1,880 passing yards with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions, along with six rushing TDs.
Senior linebacker Nick Dance, who tallied 56 tackles and 5.0 tackles for loss last season, returns to the defensive side of the football for a program that recorded 394 solo tackles and 89 tackles for loss.
“UT-Martin did some really good things for a half, two, and half quarters, against both Mississippi State and Kentucky. They made plays and got them behind the chains,” Freeze said. “We are certainly preparing for it, but that doesn’t mean they won’t make us look bad at certain times because they do have a good system.”
“They know what they are doing with their blitzes. Our quarterbacks, they run the game at that time, and they’ve got to make the right decision or it could be a negative play. UT-Martin does have a great plan and a good scheme.”
Ole Miss versus FCS Opponents
The Rebels have won four straight games against FCS schools (Southern Illinois 2011, Central Arkansas 2012, Southeast Missouri 2013, Presbyterian 2014) since dropping their 2010 season opener to Jacksonville State in double overtime.
Since 2005, Ole Miss has won 10 of 11 games against FCS programs. The Rebels are 3-0 against FCS teams under four-year head coach Hugh Freeze.
Rebels in season openers
Ole Miss is 97-17-5 in home openers. When playing their home opener in Oxford, the Rebels are 74-10-4.
Information on Saturday’s game
Date: Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015
Time: 11:00 a.m. CT
Location: Oxford, MS
Venue: Vaught-Hemingway Stadium (59,347)
Surface: Field Turf
Ole Miss Rankings: 17 (AP), 15 (Coaches)
UT-Martin Rankings: RV (FCS Rankings)
Series: First Meeting
Live Stats and Audio: OleMissSports.com
Television: SEC Network Alternate
(Feature image credit: Bentley Breland, The Rebel Walk)