Wallace, Freeze reunion sparks Rebel resurgence
OXFORD, Miss. -- Hugh Freeze is obsessively meticulous and organized, especially when it comes to recruiting - the lifeline of any college football program.
The Ole Miss head coach could undoubtedly rattle off the top 10 prospects in Mississippi for 2015 or the linebackers who have lined up visits for later in the football season. It's a passion and a compulsion that's necessary in the hyperactive Southeastern Conference.
So, on Monday when Freeze took a few seconds and struggled to remember the No. 2 quarterback option he pursued right after taking the Ole Miss job, the silence said more than a list of names ever could. In the early days of 2012, during the first weeks of Freeze's efforts to reverse the Rebels' struggles from a 2-10 2011 season, it may not have been Bo Wallace or bust, but it was close.
Each needed the other. Wallace desired a high-profile program where he could play immediately. Freeze wanted a quick study of a quarterback to run his up-tempo attack. They came together and 19 months later the partnership has resulted in Ole Miss emerging as a top-25 team and a turn-the-dial program in the college football world.
The Rebels are 3-0 for the first time since 1989, ranked 21st by the Associated Press and made headlines in February with a consensus top-10 recruiting class that included the No. 1 high school player in America, Robert Nkemdiche, the No. 1 wide receiver, Laquon Treadwell and the No. 1 offensive lineman, Laremy Tunsil.
However, for those stars to align, Wallace and wins had to come first. And for that to happen, trust had to be gained because the pair had been together before. That ending wasn't a good one, but it freed up the quarterback for better things to come.
Freeze has been headlined after winning recruiting battles for mega-hyped prospects, but the recruitment of the underrated junior college quarterback was a unique one, and it started it all.
"To date, he's the (signee) that's made the most impact in my opinion," Freeze said of Wallace. "So I'd say he's arguably, to date, the one that's probably just started us more. I mean, it takes all of us, but arguably, people could easily make the argument for him being the most important one thus far."
"When they're ready to come home, you're ready to bring them."
The culture shock came quickly for Wallace back in 2010.
Just a few months after carrying Giles County (Tenn.) High School to a 4A state title and a 14-game winning streak while finishing in the top five in state history in total touchdowns, passing touchdowns and passing yardage, the lanky quarterback started his college career at Arkansas State, and the results didn't meet expectations.
Wallace went to Jonesboro, Ark., days after graduation to get acquainted with the Red Wolves' program -- specifically the scheme being installed by Freeze, who ASU head coach Steve Roberts had hired just months before as coordinator to ignite a lethargic offense.
Right away it was apparent high school-type success wouldn't come immediately. Wallace, admittedly immature at the time, didn't handle the adversity as he watched redshirt sophomore Ryan Aplin secure the starting quarterback job and flourish under Freeze. Aplin broke five school records that season, despite the team going just 4-8. Meanwhile, Wallace redshirted and couldn't find contentment.
"You had Ryan Aplin in front of you and he was going to be there two more years," Freeze said. "He was very talented, and I believe in being straight with the kids and I told (Wallace), 'You're not going to play in front of him if he stays healthy.'"
Two years older, Aplin had Wallace in physical maturity and understanding the rigors of college football.
"I was Bo's host on his official visit," said Aplin, who is currently an administrative intern at Ole Miss. "He was a great kid, great family, but he needed to grow into his body. He was kind of like a baby giraffe, legs everywhere. The arm was full of strength. He had all the potential, but he got antsy and wanted to play.
"The hardest thing is the way (Freeze) coaches at practice. He's not scared to get on you. That's an adjustment for anyone. 'Ap, what are you doing? You have to complete the pass!' He's such a motivational guy, but it's a challenge until you're used to the intensity."
The on-field struggles were tough for Wallace, and he was also homesick, said Bill Wallace, Bo's father. His parents moved him into off-campus housing to try to ease the transition of being five hours from Pulaski, Tenn. Bill Wallace said everyday he drove home from work and expected to see his son sitting in the driveway.
[Related: Freeze's ascension no surprise to dad]
"Bo was 17 when he graduated, and he could have used another year at home," Bill Wallace said. "Bo wasn't ready for it, so I told him to stick it out until Christmas, and I'd get him somewhere else. It wasn't a hate Hugh Freeze thing. He wasn't happy with being away and with football. When they're ready to come home, you're ready to bring them."
"The only issue we ever had was me holding him accountable for the little things," Freeze said. "He probably didn't always approve of the way I did that, but I think he looks back and probably gained some respect for me because of it… That was a unique relationship at that point. I wasn't angry with him. I totally understood why he left."
Maturity, video-game numbers follow
The Wallace family first thought about getting Bo on the team at UT-Martin or another local four-year school, but Giles County head coach David O'Connor put in place a plan with eyes on something better for Wallace down the road. He told the quarterback's family to let him make some calls. He believed Bo could play in the SEC.
O'Connor contacted East Mississippi Community College coach Buddy Stephens, and the head man of the JUCO power was interested. Stephens met the family and Wallace moved to rural Mississippi in time for for the spring semester.
Scooba, Miss., the home of East Mississippi, isn't exactly a tourist attraction. The population was 632 as of the 2000 census, and activities past school and football are as hard to find as the place is on a map. It was perfect for Wallace. The location provided focus, and Stephens' pass-happy offense immediately dominated with Wallace at the controls.
"He goes to EMCC, goes to work and you could just tell it was a perfect fit by talking to him," Bill Wallace said. "Scooba has nothing there. That was the selling point for us because you're going to go to work and get no play time outside of school and get ready for football. His body changed from the work he was putting in the muscle mass. He grew up."
East Mississippi scored at least 40 points in every game from week three on and finished 12-0, beating previously undefeated Arizona Western, 55-47, for the national championship. In the title game, Wallace completed 31-of-44 passes for 486 yards and seven touchdowns.
In his lone season, Wallace set the NJCAA record for passing yards (4,475), passing touchdowns (53) and total offense (4,676).
"Bo still came back to Arkansas State occasionally after he left, and I kept up with him because of the video-game numbers," Aplin said. "You wanted to see what he did next because he just dominated that league."
The offers finally come
While Wallace was the talk of junior college football, major colleges remained hesitant to throw firm scholarship offers his way. The recruiting services undervalued him, as Rivals.com listed Wallace as a 5.6 three-star prospect. He was, however, the only quarterback in the Rivals.com JUCO top 50.
A couple weeks after the national championship game, the first school fired away and severals others followed. In short time, Wallace had offers from Mississippi State, Indiana, Baylor, Florida Atlantic, Memphis, Middle Tennessee and UAB.
MSU was the early leader and a school Wallace's parents thought was a good fit from the start.
"(MSU head coach) Dan Mullen talked to us and was entertaining," Bill Wallace said. "He can tell jokes and work you pretty good."
Wallace had options, but he was patient. Wherever he ended up, he had to enroll for the spring semester, but as the offers came in, he waited on a certain one. Finally, Freeze, who had been at Ole Miss mere days, sent Wallace the invitation to be his quarterback.
Wallace knew that was the one. He saw how he played a part in how things ended at Arkansas State, and he wanted to be back under Freeze's tutelage. To avoid a knee-jerk reaction, his parents made sure he knew of the positives with the other Mississippi school in the SEC.
"My parents were saying, 'Why would you want to go back to him when you were just there?" Wallace said. "If you wanted him to coach you, you should have stayed at Arkansas State.' Honestly, my parents were big on me going to Mississippi State. It was kind of my decision to come here. Once I told them, they were OK with it. There were definitely some reservations on whether I should come here or not."
Bill Wallace said he never talked to Freeze during the recruitment process. Bo's mom, Trina, had a long conversation with the head coach and was satisfied with message.
"Our vote was Mississippi State," Bill Wallace said. "We didn't get a vote, but if we did it was State. Our concern with Coach Freeze was if he was the guy to carry Bo where he needed to go. We had never gotten that feeling in the past. We didn't think he believed in Bo, but we sat and talked to Bo, and he told us he was the one that screwed up and was immature. He believed Coach Freeze believed in him to carry Ole Miss and be his guy.
"He called me and told me he was going to Ole Miss, and from that moment we were all 100 percent committed. It's worked out so well. We absolutely love Ole Miss and its people who will do anything for you. Bo is happy as can be. He's a changed person."
Wallace was a frequent visitor to Ole Miss during high school and loved the place, but his decision to be a Rebel was more comprehensive than aesthetics and Freeze. The Rebels were coming off a catatonic season, where turmoil was the norm, and Houston Nutt used three quarterbacks as ineffectively as possible. Ole Miss averaged 16 points and 151 passing yards per game.
Randall Mackey played in nine games at quarterback, Zack Stoudt played in six and Barry Brunetti played in five. Brunetti was the only one with a completion percentage higher than 50, and he attempted just 35 passes for 144 yards. The group threw nine touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
"I just think it was the best chance I had to play," Wallace said. "I didn't want to sit another year. They didn't really have a returning quarterback. They'd played so many. I knew State was probably going to go with (Tyler) Russell. He knew the offense and everything like that. This was just the choice I had to make.
"I also didn't want to learn a new offense. I'd been in two already in two years of college. That first year, when you're learning a new offense, it tough. It's tough on you. You can tell this year. Everybody's in their second year and we're picking up on it faster than we did last year."
Stoudt never challenged for true playing time due to injury and style of play. Freeze moved Mackey to running back where he found a niche, and Wallace beat out Brunetti for the starting job.
Less than two years after they parted, Freeze and Wallace were reunited and tasked with a rebuilding effort that needed to be immediate.
Wins necessary to elevate program
On June 14, Robert Nkemdiche committed to Clemson. That summer, before Wallace was even firmly entrenched as the starting quarterback, he knew there was a degree of pressure. The Rebels had to perform immediately if his career was to be a successful one from a team standpoint.
Denzel Nkemdiche, Robert's older brother, was at Ole Miss, and that was a tremendous advantage, but the constant comparison to Jadaveon Clowney wasn't coming to a loser, no matter the ties. Wallace and Denzel became friends quickly, so Wallace understood the reality. Ole Miss couldn't roll a 3-9.
"I knew from the summer we had to win some games to get Rob," Wallace said. "If we had won three or four games, Rob wasn't coming here. I felt like once we got Rob -- Rob knew all the big-time guys at camps and all-star games and things like that -- it would have a ripple effect. So yeah, we definitely had to win some games."
The Rebels started 2-0, fell in blowout fashion to Texas and then turned a corner. The 66-31 thrashing was an eye-opening experience that caused a young, fragile team to come together. After that, Ole Miss was competitive each week, save for a weird second half at Georgia.
The Rebels got to five wins quickly, broke a 16-game SEC losing streak with back-to-back wins over Auburn and Arkansas, and Robert Nkemdiche decommitted from Clemson on Nov. 8.
Wallace, meanwhile, was finding success in Freeze's tempo attack. The brand of football excited fans and recruits, and Ole Miss hit a milestone the Saturday after Thanksgiving with a decisive 41-24 win over Mississippi State to gain bowl eligibility.
Nkemdiche and other top recruits celebrated on the field with Ole Miss supporters, and the Rebels had an insurmountable lead for the No. 1 player in the nation -- and the foundation to surround him with multiple immediate-impact signees.
[Related: Ole Miss moves closer to 'Big Boy Club']
In the regular season finale, Wallace lit up the high-profile MSU secondary for 294 yards and five touchdowns on 15-of-22 passing. Days later, he beat out Bulldog cornerback and 2013 NFL Draft first round pick Johnthan Banks for the C Spire Conerly Trophy, given annually to Mississippi's top college football player.
"Beating Mississippi State was the best moment so far," Bill Wallace said. "You don't know the rivalry until you get there and see it. Bo is talking to you about it all the time and how excited he was. We were so pumped about the game. He put on a good show. It was incredible.
"You look back, and this has been so special for Bo. It's where he needed to be, with people he needed to be around."
With a 38-17 win over Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl to cap the season, Wallace finished his first year as an SEC quarterback with 2,994 passing yards, 3,384 total yards and 22 touchdowns, good for fourth, second and third in school history, respectively.
His eight rushing touchdowns were the most by an Ole Miss quarterback since Archie Manning, and he had the second-highest completion percentage (63.9) in school history.
Work left to do
Wallace spent the spring and summer recovering from shoulder surgery, an ailment that debilitated him far worse in 2012 than most people knew.
He injured the shoulder during the first month of the season and played through the pain, despite being unable to raise his arm over his head some days, Bill Wallace said. The recovery was textbook and allowed him time to join his teammates for 7-on-7 drills during the summer. It was early preparation in his quest to cut down on the 17 interceptions as a sophomore, the lone negative to his introductory season.
So far in 2013, he hasn't thrown a pick. A couple passes were close, but opponents have caught zero of his 87 throws. The shoulder continues to strengthen, and the Rebels lead the league in plays per game. Oxford, Miss., has become giddy with the trajectory of the program. Only two Ole Miss starting quarterbacks -- Archie Manning and Romaro Miller -- have led their teams to three straight bowl games, and Ole Miss' current course makes Wallace a favorite to join that group by the end of 2014.
Wallace thinks about his place history, but he stays grounded when doing so.
"I don't think anybody is going to be viewed as Eli or Archie," Wallace said. "That's what you want to be. You want to have a legacy here. I can remember thinking to myself at halftime of the Texas game, 'All right, this is going to be your legacy. What are you going to do right here? Are you going to go out and throw a couple of picks?'"
The 2-10 season of 2011 is a memory and the end of an era, and while there's still depth needed at positions and more steps to Freeze's rebuild, the head coach and quarterback have come a long way in a short time. Their rapport is a routine. Freeze's intensity plays well with the seasoned Wallace. There's an emotional give-and-take, and they're back on task quickly.
"I'm a fiery person," Wallace said. "It's hard to just sit back. If I make a bad decision, I don't usually just take it. If I felt like, 'This is why I threw this, let me tell you why,' then I'm going to try to voice myself. He's got to let me blow off some steam. He's going to blow off some steam. I'm going to blow off some steam, and once I get on the phone with Coach (Dan) Werner, it's going to be calm and just, 'Let's relax and talk about what needs to get done.'"
Sometime next Friday, Freeze and Wallace will get on a bus, leaders of a nationally ranked SEC team, and head to Tuscaloosa, Ala., for an ESPN-televised date with No. 1 Alabama. Thirty-three months after separating, they are key figures in the Rebel resurgence.
Nkemdiche, Treadwell and Tunsil are the recruiting battles Freeze is being celebrated for, but it started when the JUCO quarterback and his family agreed to trust him. To believe in the vision that is happening now.
"This is all pretty crazy," Wallace said. "It's crazy how everything has come full circle."