Grant Heard understands the importance of a strong start. A wide receiver at Ole Miss from 1996 to 2000, he left Oxford as the Rebels' all-time leader in receptions (142) and touchdowns (16). He jump-started his career with a productive freshman season in 1996, when he started four games, caught two scoring passes and finished second on the team with 291 receiving yards.
Heard, now in his second year as the wide receivers coach at his alma mater, sees similarities between the way his own career began and how many of the freshmen on the Ole Miss roster have been playing during the No. 25 Rebels' 2-0 start. A youth movement is a big reason why Ole Miss has jumped back into the AP Poll for the first time since 2009, as well as why the program seems to be on the rise in coach Hugh Freeze’s second season.
“It’s great to see all the young guys making plays,” Heard said. “But more importantly, it’s good to show guys coming in after them that we’re not scared to play young guys. If you’re ready, and you’re the best, we’re going to give you a chance.”
Coming off a 7-6 campaign in 2012, the Rebels last February inked the nation's seventh-best recruiting class, according to Rivals.com. More than a few true freshman have already made an impact this season, including the country's No. 1 recruit, 6-foot-5, 294-pound defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, who leads the team with three tackles for loss. Wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, the No. 1 prospect at his position in 2013, tops Ole Miss with 11 catches, and tight end Evan Engram’s 131 receiving yards likewise leads the team. Tackle Laremy Tunsil (6-5, 315 pounds) and guard Austin Golson (6-5, 300) have seen significant playing time on the offensive line, and first-year defensive back Tony Conner intercepted a pass in the Rebels’ 39-35 win over Vanderbilt, earning a start the next week in the 31-12 defeat of Southeast Missouri.
In all, 10 true freshmen made their Ole Miss debut during the season’s first two games. All that talent is a blessing for a program in rebuilding mode, as coaches hope that the experience their newcomers are getting now will help solidify the Rebels’ foundation going forward. “We knew the guys we recruited would be really good players,” Heard said, “but with all freshmen, you never know how they’re going to develop. Coach Freeze just wants great competition across the board. These guys are just coming in and earning what they’ve got.”
The latest test for Ole Miss is a trip to Austin, Texas, where the Longhorns are reeling after an ugly 40-21 loss at BYU last week. The Cougars gouged Texas for 550 rushing yards, and coach Mack Brown fired defensive coordinator Manny Diaz one day later, replacing him with former Longhorns defensive coordinator Greg Robinson. Quarterback David Ash and all-purpose threat Daje Johnson are out. Reports even surfaced on Friday that longtime athletic director DeLoss Dodds will step down at the end of the calendar year, though the university denied those reports.
The Rebels, meanwhile, are humming on offense, averaging 35 points and 510.5 yards per game. In just over six quarters of action, the first-team offense has put up more than 70 points.
But while Ole Miss survived a relatively tough road meeting with Vanderbilt in Week 1, the atmosphere in Austin figures to be more hostile than it was in Nashville. Texas is still smarting from its fall out of the national rankings, and the criticism of Brown is getting louder. Freeze expects the Longhorns to play with a chip on their shoulders.
“Texas will be ready to prove that they are better than they performed last week,” the coach told reporters on Monday. “We understand what we'll get from them. We'll have to challenge our kids to see if we can raise our game and match Texas' level of intensity.”
The Rebels' veterans won’t be without incentive. Last season in Oxford, the 14th-ranked Longhorns ripped through Ole Miss 66-31, a result that left an impression on more than a few Rebels, especially junior quarterback Bo Wallace, who was making only his third start and threw three interceptions. The 6-4, 209-pound Wallace likes the chemistry he’s developing with his young receivers this season. Against the Commodores, Treadwell set Ole Miss freshman records with nine catches and 82 receiving yards. “We feel confident; we know that we have playmakers,” Wallace said during his Monday press conference. “I have guys who can go up and get the ball for me.”
The Texas defense may have its problems, but it hasn’t struggled to rush the passer. The Longhorns have given up only 185.5 yards through the air, and their opponents have thrown twice as many interceptions (two) as touchdown passes (one). “They like to get up and get in your face and pressure you,” Heard said. That’s the kind of challenge Treadwell, Engram and the rest of the Rebels' freshmen need to meet if they are to develop into SEC contenders.
For Ole Miss, this meeting with a traditional Big 12 power is a good tune-up for what’s to come. If the Rebels escape Austin with a win, they could head into Week 4’s road tussle with No. 1 Alabama as a top-20 team. That’s something that few expected from Freeze only three games into his second season. But nobody in Oxford is getting ahead of themselves. “They beat us by 30 points last year,” Wallace said of Texas. “They had better talent than us, or more depth, at least. They beat us by 30. Now, it’s time to go down there and play.”
The other big boys
• No. 16 UCLA at No. 23 Nebraska: The Bruins are coming off a bye week, and quarterback Brett Hundley is the same Brett Hundley who accounted for 358 of UCLA's 653 total yards in a 36-30 win over the Cornhuskers at the Rose Bowl last fall. Perhaps Nebraska's fortunes will be different now that this weekend's game will be played at Memorial Stadium, where the 'Huskers have won 17 of their last 18 nonconference games.
• No. 1 Alabama at No. 6 Texas A&M: The home crowd at Bryant-Denny Stadium didn’t help the Crimson Tide much against the Aggies in 2012. Expect the reception for Alabama to be, um, even less welcoming on Saturday.
What are the chances?
• Teddy Bridgewater throws a pick? Kentucky couldn’t force Western Kentucky quarterback Brandon Doughty into an interception in its Week 1 loss. That’s the same Brandon Doughty who threw five interceptions against Tennessee the very next week. Bridgewater’s arrival doesn’t bode well for the Wildcats, as he’s thrown only a single pick alongside an FBS-leading nine touchdown passes.
• The Vols stop the run? Tennessee is holding opponents to an impressive 125 rushing yards per contest. Of course, that’s through two games against Austin Peay and Western Kentucky. Containing second-ranked Oregon’s tandem of quarterback Marcus Mariota and running back De’Anthony Thomas, who average 243.5 yards on the ground between them, should be different.
• Jared Goff outshines Braxton Miller? No quarterback in FBS has thrown for more yards than Cal’s Jared Goff through two games; he’s averaging 472.5 yards through the air. Ohio State’s Braxton Miller, on the other hand, heads to Berkley nursing a banged-up left knee. Can Goff outplay the Heisman contender?
Keep an eye out for …
• Ole Miss QB Bo Wallace: The Longhorns were gashed by a read-option quarterback last week when BYU’s Taysom Hill ran for 259 yards in a blowout win in Provo. That’s a very good sign for Wallace, whose wheels have helped him rush for 63 yards and two touchdowns to go along with his two scoring passes this season.
• The Fighting Irish defense: Notre Dame’s D was its bread-and-butter during last year’s undefeated regular season. But the unit uncharacteristically surrendered 460 yards in last week’s loss to Michigan. Purdue’s offense is hardly explosive, but the Irish needed a late field goal to escape with a 20-17 victory over the Boilermakers last season.
Matchups to watch
• Arizona State DT Will Sutton vs. Wisconsin RBs: The Badgers’ three running backs have each rushed for at least 100 yards in each of the team’s first two games. But Melvin Gordon, James White and Corey Clement haven’t faced a defensive tackle like Sutton, who was an All-America for the Sun Devils in 2012.
• Florida State QB James Winston vs. Nevada QB Cody Fajardo: It’s almost eerie how closely these two quarterbacks mirror one another. Both are coming off exceptionally accurate outings -- Fajardo completed 18-of-21 passes in a 36-7 defeat of UC Davis on Sept. 7, Winston completed 25-of-27 in a 41-13 beatdown of Pitt on Sept. 2 -- and they’re each legitimate threats to run the ball. But Nevada’s Fajardo has a much tougher matchup against the Seminoles’ rugged defense.
• Army RB Larry Dixon vs. Stanford LB Shane Skov: The Black Knights' offensive priorities are no secret: Army has rushed the ball 106 times this season while throwing only 28 passes. Their main weapon is Dixon, who is averaging 7.8 yards per carry, but Skov is an anchor for one of the best run defenses in the country.