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A day after Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen extolled the virtues of Starkville, Miss., Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze put on his Chamber of Commerce cap and waxed poetically about Oxford.
"People like Eli Manning and Michael Oher, Kendrick Clancy, Derrick Burgess, guys that are great ambassadors for not only Ole Miss and in the NFL doing very well, they choose to make that their living when they're not involved with their teams," Freeze said. "I'm sure Eli could live anywhere he wanted to.
"I also saw Newsweek ranked Oxford as the number one college town in America. Sports Illustrated said we're the number one tailgate in the nation. Recruits, when they come there, they see a group of people that are very happy, that don't want to leave there. I think Oxford, Mississippi, is a great place to live. There's a lot of great places in the state of Mississippi, but I'd put that on the top. Where else could you go in the state of Mississippi where you find a town and university that is the home of three national championships, six SEC national championships, 13th all time in bowl wins, active in the nation, 20th in bowl appearances.
"The future, if we can get it to where the past has been, it's one of the greatest places in the world. You can ask Eli and those guys why they come back. Those are facts. If you want to tweet that out, that would be great."
GAMECOCKS GET 'CIRCLE': Earlier this week, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier called out Ole Miss to a degree, saying he'd much rather play the Rebels than Auburn or LSU. It was a comment Freeze wasn't crazy about. The Rebels play South Carolina next season, and Freeze said he planned to circle the date.
"I started getting Tweets about what he said and of course the Rebel Nation wanted me to do something," Freeze said. "I tried to make it a practice of not talking about other coaches and other teams in a pure negative, because I'm blessed to be a part of this. I don't know coach Spurrier, I don't know if he knows me other than the meetings we've been in. I said my response and we'll play them in 2013. I hope I can change his outlook on wanting to play Mississippi so bad. But if he wants it so bad, he has enough power to change it this year. We'll play them instead of Georgia if that's what he wants."
EGG BOWL A PRIORITY?: Freeze didn't take the bait Thursday regarding the Rebels' rivalry with Mississippi State. Instead, he said his program had work to do before it could focus solely on the Bulldogs.
"Coach Mullen's staff, his players have done a good job of capturing the momentum in that series," Freeze said, acknowledging Mississippi State's three-game winning streak in the series. "I give credit where credit is due. We're not talking about that right now because we have so many other issues to prepare for in getting us ready for the home opener. I know that's a cliché, but it really is the truth.
When that week comes, obviously I was born and raised in the state of Mississippi. I understand the way it divides families. I understand the emotions that are involved in it. I get all of that. There will be a little extra incentive that week to be a little bit more energized, probably a little different feeling in your stomach, I guess. It would be hard because you feel that way in this conference every single week it seems like.
"Certainly I get what it means to the people there and to Rebel Nation, and our kids will understand that very clearly when that time comes. Right now our focus is on other issues."
REBELS BEAT DOWN?: Speaking of focus, Freeze said he's not concerned about the external negative message surrounding his team.
"I think they hear the consistent message we give them every day, that winning the day is the process of getting out of the wilderness," Freeze said. "That's what they're focused on. I know our staff is focused on how do we win today, not talking about the negatives of where we are, but being real. This is where we are. Everybody knows it. It's documented all over ESPN and everywhere else this week. So our kids hear that, they know that.
"What they hear from us is, 'Here is how we're going to change it.' I'm thrilled we have a core group of guys that have bought in. I think we're setting around 60 percent of our team that has bought in. I think you need to get it to about 80 percent to have a fighting chance. Hopefully we can get that done before the fall."
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WINNING DEBUT IN THE CARDS?: Freeze won and won big in his first season as Arkansas State's head coach. He was asked Thursday if that experience could lead to a repeat in Year One in Oxford.
"I don't know if that's a fair judge necessarily, because the year we had last year at Arkansas State was a remarkable ride," Freeze said. "The chemistry we had, the discipline that was already there that I have to give Steve Roberts, the coach before me, a lot of credit for. He had a lot of great things in place, and I learned a lot of things from him.
"Defensively I thought we were really, really talented at Arkansas State. If you look at it, we have four kids off that defense that two got drafted, two were picked up in the draft. I think we had some really talented kids defensively. Then our quarterback play, you know, for him to complete 72 percent of his balls, throw for 4,000, lead us in rushing also, he had a phenomenal year. If you get that kind of play out of that the defensive line, whatever league you're in, you're going to have a chance. I do think we were more talented at some spots, or maybe 'deeper' is the appropriate term I should use."
BACK WITH BO: Freeze said Thursday junior college transfer Bo Wallace and Barry Brunetti enter fall drills Aug. 4 as co-No. 1s at quarterback. Freeze and Wallace have a relationship that began at Arkansas State when Freeze was the Red Wolves' offensive coordinator.
"I would love to hear Bo's description of our journey together," Freeze said. "It was a little rocky at Arkansas State. He was a young freshman, I think he would say, had his idea of what the freshman year in college was going to be like. He's all boy. That had some rocky points in it, but I don't think it ever got to the point where we didn't care for one another or share the same aspirations.
"His leaving Arkansas State was his choice, and I understood it. We didn't want him to go. But he had Ryan Aplin in front of him for a couple more years. It was pretty clear _ we're very honest and straightforward with our kids, tell them where they are _ and he chose to leave. It obviously benefited him greatly.
"He had numerous amount of offers, had the remarkable year he's had. I think he's matured as a person, number one. When I sit down and talk and have discussions with him about life or football or whatever, he's definitely a different kid. He's matured. Not that he doesn't still make poor choices like all of the kids that we coach in this league sometimes do, but he certainly has matured.
"I think the only thing holding him back right now is just more reps. Of course, I think Barry has successful talents, some strengths that maybe Bo does not have, and vice versa. Which one is going to be the best for our football team, I'm not quite sure yet. But Bo is going to be in the mix.
At the end of spring ball, arguably he had the best game that day, but not to a point where I don't want to see what strengths the other kids can bring also."
HELP ON THE HORIZON?: Freeze said he hopes freshman defensive back Trae Elston plays "a lot" this season. I hope he plays.
"Talent-wise, I think he's there," Freeze said. "Is he ready Year 1? I don't know, but he's probably going to get thrown in there regardless - whether he's ready or not."
ACADEMIC WOES: Freeze wouldn't delve into specifics or names Thursday, but he said one player on the current roster "has a mountain to overcome" to remain eligible academically.
"The others if they can just do what is expected of them, they should make it," Freeze said. "Everyone has a chance to be eligible at the end of July with the exception of one kid. That kid would take August, if he does what he is supposed to do in July. Now if he doesn't in July, we're probably going to part ways."
FREEZE 'CAUTIOUSLY OPTIMISTIC': The road in front of him and his program is long and uphill, Freeze acknowledged again Thursday, but he continued to maintain that he is "cautiously optimistic" about the progress he has made already.
"I don't think you ever let yourself get to where in this league with these young men and the world that we live in that you ever let yourself get to feeling like you're not vulnerable," Freeze said. "I always feel that way when you're dealing with kids. They make bad decisions sometimes and do things that aren't always right, just like we do. So I don't feel like - I'm just cautiously optimistic."