Rebels shift focus to field as NCAA case looms

OXFORD, MS (WMC) - When it comes to Ole Miss football, the actual football part has not been the story this off-season.

With the dark cloud of an ongoing NCAA case hanging over the program, Rebels head coach Hugh Freeze is doing his best to shift focus back on the team's preparation for the upcoming season.

"It's been too long that I can't sit here and talk about our program being relevant in the SEC West," said Freeze at SEC Media Days on Thursday.

While Freeze tried to stick to the X's and O's on the podium at SEC Media Days, there was no escaping questions about the NCAA's five-year probe into his program.

To make matters worse, Freeze's predecessor Houston Nutt announced a lawsuit against Ole Miss a day before the Rebels stepped in front of the cameras in Hoover, Alabama.

Nutt's lawsuit claims Ole Miss breached its severance agreement with him by defaming his character in regards to the NCAA investigation.

"Obviously I can't comment on it," Freeze said. "I have my opinions on it for sure. Wish I could share them but can't. Thought the timing was questionable."

Timing hasn't been a friend of Freeze in recent years.

Ole Miss initially was on the way to wrapping up its case with the NCAA at the start of 2016 with 13 allegations against the program, but in April of that year, Rebels former offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil confessed to taking money from Ole Miss coaches.

Tunsil's comments re-opened the investigation into the program, and in February the NCAA announced eight more allegations against Freeze and the Rebels, putting the count at 21.

The most serious being "lack of institutional control."

The dragged-out process has not only hurt Freeze's good guy image but also Ole Miss' shot at recruiting top talent.

"There's no question that I am eagerly anticipating the final run of this, Freeze said. "This fall hopefully. Where every recruit will have the finality in front of them. There won't be any speculation out there that they have to choose whether they have to believe or not. It'll be, 'this is what it is."'

As the Rebels meeting with the committee on infractions approaches, so does the 2017 football season.

A season that won't see Ole Miss compete for the college football playoff or a bowl game, because of a self-imposed one year bowl ban.

It's enough to cause attrition at most programs, but Rebels quarterback Shea Patterson says not at Ole Miss.

"I think it's brought us a lot closer together," Patterson said. "Adversity really tends to crumble apart or brings your guys together. I think that's one thing this off-season, I've never been around a group of guys or coaches that have worked as hard as we have in the spring and in the summer. We're gonna take that chip on our shoulders and head into the season."

The future of the Ole Miss football program has a lot of questions right now, but one thing is for sure, Freeze's players still believe in their coach.

"It's just a part of the business," said Rebels defensive lineman Breeland Speaks. "Nothing has really changed. I still love my coach."

The Rebels kick off the season September 2, as they welcome South Alabama to Oxford.

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