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Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze

5 things to watch in Ole Miss spring game

For Ole Miss, the offseason included many headlines and headaches.

Unfortunately for Rebels fans, most of those developments required Excedrin. From a notice of new NCAA violations to a staff overhaul by coach Hugh Freeze, this was no quiet winter in Oxford after Ole Miss finished its 2016 season with a disappointing 5-7 record.

There will be football played Saturday at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Sure, it’s only the spring game, which kicks off at noon ET on SEC Network. But any action should be a welcome reprieve as the Rebels try to move forward through the fog that settled over the program.

Here are five things to watch.

Shea Patterson

No player should have a bigger impact on Ole Miss next season. Patterson threw for 880 yards with 6 touchdowns and 3 interceptions in 3 games last season as a freshman. He had a dynamic debut in throwing for 338 yards with 2 touchdowns and 1 interception in a victory over Texas A&M on Nov. 12.

Patterson must take a big step forward for the Rebels to become competitive in the SEC West once more. The potential for growth under new offensive coordinator Phil Longo is there, but it remains to be seen what kind of personality the unit will take on under Longo’s leadership. Above all, Patterson must thrive.

Don’t expect many lessons to be gained from the spring game. But a solid showing by Patterson should make Ole Miss fans dream about possible large things to come in the fall.

Wesley McGriff

Ole Miss’ defense needs a major overhaul. It will be fascinating to see if the Rebels’ new coordinator can deliver.

In 2016, the Rebels were seventh in the SEC in pass defense (214.9 yards per game) and last in scoring defense (34.0 points per game) and rush defense (246.33 ypg). Ole Miss must develop an edge, and spring practices represented the opening steps of a possible turnaround.

McGriff is no stranger to Oxford. He spent 2012 with the Rebels as their co-defensive coordinator/cornerbacks coach before beginning stints as a defensive assistant with the New Orleans Saints and Auburn. Ole Miss needs results from him fast.

Phil Longo

Like McGriff, Longo will try to make a quality first impression in his new role.

Ole Miss’ offense was a strength last season, finishing first in the SEC in passing (314.9 yards per game) and fourth in scoring (32.6 points per game). Still, quality skill players must be replaced. The running game also needs work after it closed 12th in the SEC (149.42 yards per game) last season.

Likely, Longo won’t reveal much during the spring game. But it will be interesting to see how the offense takes its opening steps into a new era.

Hugh Freeze‘s ability to manage the new faces

With all the various staff changes, there has to be pressure on Freeze to produce. The 2016 season marked the first time in Freeze’s five years at Ole Miss that the Rebels finished with fewer than seven victories. These are different, challenging times near The Grove.

Clearly, another season with five wins or fewer would be devastating for Freeze, especially with an NCAA investigation that led to a self-imposed bowl ban for the upcoming season hanging over the program. The stakes are high.

Freeze has to realize that his new hires must work out or more dark clouds will roll in.

What will the mood at Ole Miss be like?

So much happened at Ole Miss in recent months that it’s easy for news involving the program to become a blur. The high point of Freeze’s tenure — a 10-3 season in 2015 capped by a victory over Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl — seems so long ago. Right now, there are more questions than answers about the Rebels’ future.

Still, fans should be eager to receive this sneak peek at Ole Miss’ next chapter.

By no means will the Rebels end Saturday as a finished product. But it will be curious to see what expectations will form for next season as we move closer to the fall.