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Q&A: Bruce Feldman talks spring and recruitment

 

Sports Editor Austin Miller and football beat writer David Collier caught up with Bruce Feldman from CBS Sports and author of Meat Market: Inside the Smash-Mouth World of College Football Recruiting on their weekly show “Daytime Fireworks” on Rebel Sports Radio to discuss first-year head football coach Hugh Freeze and the Ole Miss football program.

Austin Miller: Jumping right in with your experience with Ole Miss, talk about your familiarity with Hugh Freeze and the Ole Miss football program during your two years of covering it.

Bruce Feldman: I have fond memories of being around Oxford. It’s a fun place, and it’s a great place to be on a football weekend. I love the restaurants and everything about it. As far as this staff, it’s interesting. I haven’t had the chance to get back to Oxford since Freeze was hired, but almost all of his staff were guys that I was around for at least the first year of working on “Meat Market” and probably the second year once the book was out, promoting the book. It was a combination of guys from that staff, not just Freeze – everyone from Grant Heard, who played there, Dan Warner, who coached there, and the support staff like Barney Farror and Maurice Harris and even guys like Chris Kiffin, the defensive line coach, was there towards the end. It’s a good group of guys. They’re all hard workers. I think the big thing with Freeze when I tell other people who are unfamiliar with him, the first thing that I bring out is that this guy is probably the best speaker in front of people that I’ve ever been around. That’s no hyperbole. If you get a chance to see Hugh Freeze give a speech to a team or a group, it will really make an impression on you. I would not be surprised that if the first time Ole Miss is on TV if he gives them access to the locker room before the game because it will resonate. It will get people’s attention. I think he’s a good recruiter because he’s committed to it. The best thing I think Orgeron had there was the passion for recruiting, and I think Freeze understood that, and he learned from that and benefitted from that. I think that is already serving him well, quite honestly. He knows the area. He went to Southern Miss, coached in Memphis, coached at Ole Miss for a decent amount of time and even being at Arkansas State is not that far away. He knows the people around there. He knows what Ole Miss has to offer. He just knows the pulse of that area. I think that’s important. And because he works hard. That doesn’t guarantee that he’s going to turn Ole Miss into a powerhouse in the SEC West because that’s the most loaded, brutal division in college football. He could do a nice job there and never get them in the Top 25, especially considering how bad of shape the program is in from the past two years. He inherited a mess. You don’t go from the worst season in school history at 2-10 to 10-2. I think if he can win four or five games this year, I think that would be a huge first step.

AM: What’s your assessment of his first four months in Oxford with signing a kid like Channing Ward and your thoughts on his first spring in Oxford?

BF: I think the first thing is the recruiting, and you mention Ward. He is a big time guy and a guy that everyone wanted. I know that just in the last week that he got one of the top ten junior college defensive linemen in the country that everyone wanted. I think those are the things you need to keep doing because it builds momentum and gets people’s attention. I think it gets other recruits attention to say, ‘Oh, they’re legit now.’ And one thing I know seeing from Orgeron, and I’ve seen from Freeze, is that he’s not shy to be the first one to offer because he believes in the loyalty card of, ‘Hey, we believed in you before anyone else did,’ (it) makes an impact with a lot of kids. But there are a lot of those kids that when a bigger program offers in the middle of the season that you may lose. I could see that being a challenge. I can see Freeze getting some big commitments over the summer, but if kids don’t see big results and someone else who is on national TV every week offers, you’ve got to battle. And he will; those guys will. I know the makeup of a lot of those guys. He has a lot of good people around him, and I think that’s important. And he does have head coaching experience. I’m curious to see how he does. That is not an easy place to sustain success, obviously. He’s got a lot of challenges. I think that it’s going to be interesting. All the things I’ve heard on the recruiting trail have been good. I haven’t heard as much about spring football and the direction of things there. But on recruiting, there’s a buzz out there, and it’s positive. 

AM: What should fans’ expectations be for this first year? He turned around an Arkansas State program in one year. You talked about four or five wins – is that the expectation?

BF: I think the difference with Arkansas State and Ole Miss is that you were in the Sun Belt. I think the gap between some of those programs is not significant. I look at the beginning of the schedule and see Central Arkansas and UTEP has to come there. Those are games you should win. Then, you’ve got Tulane. Even though Tulane is on the road, those three games should surpass the win total you had the year before. But when you look at the rest of the schedule, you get Vanderbilt and Mississippi State at home, but Mississippi State, as much as it pains to hear this, Dan Mullen has done a good job there. The gap has widened. That’s what Freeze walked into. Vanderbilt is a beatable team, but they are a team that played hard last year. After you look at that, the rest of the schedule is the SEC. Nothing’s easy. Texas, Texas A&M, those aren’t going to be easy. There’s not a Kentucky on there. It’s going to be tough. Three wins they should get. I can see maybe four, but if they get more than four, if Freeze can get them to 5-7, I think he would be in the running for coach of the year in the conference. I think if he wins four, Ole Miss fans should be enthusiastic. I think the challenge is that if he only wins three, and the three I think he should get, then you’ll start off 3-1, and people will get excited. Then all of a sudden, you can lose the last eight. If you get beaten up in those games, I think that’s where it’s going to test recruiting. You’ve got to be patient. I think they can get some momentum going early, and we’ll see what happens after that.

AM: While the record may not show it, where do you see those improvements?

BF: I think where you need to see improvement, ultimately the win-loss record is the most important, is don’t get blown out of some of these games. Be competitive. Can you be competitive with Texas A&M, who has a new coaching staff and a new quarterback? They do have a really good offensive line, but their defense isn’t great. Can you be competitive at home versus Texas A&M? Can you be competitive against Auburn at home? Those are back-to-back games. If you can be competitive at home, this home schedule is really interesting to me because, just look at it now, (it) is Texas A&M, I think they’ve still got the talent edge; Auburn, Vanderbilt and Missississippi State; those are games that they should be competitive in. It’s the road games where you have the potential to get really hammered. Alabama is going to be a brutal trip. LSU is a brutal trip. I think Georgia could be a really tough game. I think Tulane is the only road game that you have a good chance with matching up well with. I think just being competitive at home is a realistic expectation. It may not be, but I think that would give something for people to build on to see the team battling and go from there.