OXFORD, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi won only two games last season, so it would appear obvious that the Rebels are rebuilding.
But the team's veterans say they're not allowing themselves to think that way.
"We're playing for now," Ole Miss junior linebacker Mike Marry said. "We're not playing for next season. Every time we step on the field we want to win. You can't play for the future, because the future's not promised to you."
Marry said first-year coach Hugh Freeze isn't just laying the foundation for future wins, but preparing the Rebels for immediate success. Freeze led quick turnarounds at both NAIA-level Lambuth (Tenn.) and Arkansas State before being hired by Ole Miss in December after Houston Nutt was fired following a 2-10 season.
Instant success in the SEC might be a little more difficult — especially with a roster that even Freeze admits is short on elite talent. A brutal schedule that includes games against Alabama, LSU, Arkansas, Texas and Georgia doesn't help.
Freeze says his players are realistic about the challenges ahead, but have responded well during offseason workouts. Ole Miss begins preseason practice Saturday.
"They understand that we're in rebuilding mode," Freeze said. "But I also think we'll have them ready to play. If you don't expect to win, then you're certainly not going to. I think it's a combination. We understand where we are and that we have some uphill climbs in some games — on paper anyway — but I do think we can create a confidence during fall camp."
The Rebels will have several position battles in camp, including at quarterback between returner Barry Brunetti and junior college transfer Bo Wallace. Former quarterback Randall Mackey has been moved to running back as the Rebels try to build more depth in the backfield behind starter Jeff Scott.
Brunetti completed 19 of 35 passes (54.3 percent) for 144 yards and rushed for 110 yards in a part-time role last season. Wallace had spectacular numbers last season at East Mississippi Community College, throwing for 4,604 yards and 53 touchdowns.
Freeze says he doesn't expect a quick resolution to the quarterback race, indicating that the battle could last well into September. He's not opposed to playing two quarterbacks, but would eventually like to see one take control of the job.
"I think Bo has an advantage in the mental side of what we're trying to do, and the timing of things," Freeze said. "But I think Barry can be an athletic guy who can help us if we're struggling in some protections and make some plays for us when Bo couldn't. Which one is going to be the best for us? It's hard to say right now."
Brunetti started the opener against BYU last season, but wasn't particularly effective and lost the job. He said he spent the summer making sure that won't happen again if he's given another opportunity.
"There wasn't a day I didn't go into the film room," Brunetti said. "There's not a day I didn't lift or throw or run."
Ole Miss is also trying to strengthen a defense that gave up more than 32 points per game last season, which ranked last in the SEC. The Rebels were particularly bad against the run, giving up nearly 225 yards per game.
"Sometimes a change of voice is a good thing," Ole Miss linebacker Joel Kight said. "But at the end of the day — defense is defense. You've got to be in correct position and you've got to be physical. We've got to take care of the little things and be accountable. I think we're very talented, but we've got to have some leadership."