Ole Miss’ Freeze, players keeping focus on field with NCAA cloud hovering

Published 10:04 am Friday, July 15, 2016

HOOVER, Ala. — From hotel rooms inside The Wynfrey Hotel to the main ballroom to everywhere in between, questions regarding the NCAA investigation into Ole Miss’ football program followed head coach Hugh Freeze wherever he went Thursday during the Rebels’ appearance at Southeastern Conference Media Days.

Freeze knew they were coming. He started his seven-minute opening statement to reporters gathered in the ballroom by addressing what everybody wanted to talk about, yet there still wasn’t a whole lot he could say other than to once again reiterate his steadfast belief in “how we do things” as the probe trudges on.

Freeze said he had “no update” on where things stand with the investigation, which had another layer added back in April when former offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil said after being drafted by the Miami Dolphins that he took money from an Ole Miss staffer during his All-American career.

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Ole Miss’ coach also said he hasn’t been given any indication on when the case could reach its conclusion. The school still has to have its hearing with the Committee on Infractions, which was scheduled to be held sometime this summer before Ole Miss requested that it be postponed while it continues to look into Tunsil’s draft-night claim.

“Obviously we can’t discuss any ongoing matters,” Freeze said. “That’s the frustrating thing, but out of respect for the process, you just can’t do it. … I think it’s moving, but it would be a total guess if we started talking timelines.”

Ole Miss’ players claimed they talk even less about it. Answering questions about the investigation for the first time since Ole Miss released the Notice of Allegations (NOA) and its response in May, they said they’re spending their time on things they can control rather than the things they can’t, starting with their preparation for the season-opening Labor Day tussle with ACC heavyweight Florida State.

“There’s conversations about September,” defensive tackle D.J. Jones said. “We’re looking forward. We’re not worried about anything we can’t control, so we’re worried about Florida State and moving on from there.”

Said senior tight end Evan Engram, “We’re not worried about it. Not one bit.”

Florida State is the first of many early season tests for the Rebels, who will also get defending national champion Alabama and Georgia at home in back-to-back weeks in the season’s first month. Those are part of a four-game homestand that ends against Memphis on the first day of October followed by a week off to regroup before consecutive road games at Arkansas and LSU.

The NCAA could decide to tack on more penalties in addition to the ones the program has already self-imposed once Ole Miss has its hearing. Freeze said self-imposing a bowl ban has not been discussed, but Freeze acknowledged he will ultimately be responsible for whatever the final fallout ends up being.

“What keeps me up at night now is Florida State’s defensive line,” Freeze said. “It really is. You control what you can control. The time and place for us to be held accountable is coming. I don’t know when. And (the time) for us to share our view of things is coming.”

Until then, Freeze and his players are keeping their focus on the field.

“We don’t talk about it at all,” quarterback Chad Kelly said. “We’re focused on Florida State. That’s all that’s on our minds.”

Assistants safe for now
Three assistants — defensive line coach Chris Kiffin, tight ends coach Maurice Harris and running backs coach Derrick Nix — were implicated in wrongdoing in the NOA, though the school disagreed in its response with Nix’s alleged role in providing impermissible benefits to recruits.

Freeze doesn’t anticipate having to fire any coaches at this point, but with the investigation ongoing, he said he won’t hesitate to do it should he feel he needs to in the future.

“One area that is not a temptation for me to is cut corners to try to have success,” Freeze said. “That doesn’t interest me at all. Our staff knows that.”