Hugh Freeze had plenty of positive things to say during Monday’s press conference.
His team snapped a four-game SEC skid last Saturday afternoon by defeating Mississippi State, 27-14, and the Tigers have a great chance of earning another win this Saturday on the road at Vanderbilt.
Quarterback Payton Thorne and running back Jarquez Hunter each reached season-highs in yards last Saturday due in part to solid offensive line play. Gunner Britton was named SEC co-offensive lineman of the week after allowing just two hurries on Saturday, while Connor Lew earned SEC Freshman of the Week following his first start at center.
Freeze said Monday that he was impressed with Lew’s first start.
“I heard this morning that (Lew) is going to get freshman player of the week from SEC Network. So, congratulations to him. He graded out well. I’m thankful that he waited till the last possession to snap a ball and hit his own butt. If that would have happened the first possession, I would have been a nervous wreck the rest of the game. I asked him what happened, and he said, ‘I have no idea Coach.’ He did well. He made most of the calls the right way. He is very athletic, sometimes that hurts him a little, truthfully. He’s moving at a speed that maybe he needs to move a little slower. I thought he played solid for a freshman.”
Freeze discussed Payton Thorne’s breakout game, Vanderbilt’s offense, and much more on Monday. Here is a recap of what Freeze said during his weekly press conference.
“I’m excited to sit here with an SEC win, for sure. I’m proud of the improvement that I thought our kids showed and the job our staff did. I think it’s a direct reflection of accountability to little things that we are trying to instill in the way we operate on a daily basis here. It’s good to see them have success on the field, and hopefully, we can grow from that. I’m thankful it was a solid game, for sure. Obviously not perfect. There are very few that are, but a very solid game. I thought defensively, the truths were that it was solid. There were a few too many explosive plays. Some of that was really good throws and catches by their (Mississippi State) guys and a couple runs we didn’t really prepare for that we had to make adjustments to. They ran some midline, actually, and we hadn’t seen that. But I thought they bowed their neck and played really well in the red zone and did well there, and obviously won the turnover battle also. So, solid there defensively. Offensively, it was our best-balanced performance for sure. It was good to see our receivers make some plays and our quarterback play with some confidence. I thought our protection was good, and I thought we ran the ball really effectively against a team that really doesn’t give up the run. In the first half, I thought we ran it as well as I’ve seen anybody do that. So, good to get one at home and now, hopefully, we can build on it. This is a scary game to me. I’ve always thought playing there (Vanderbilt) was difficult, for whatever reason. I know you can look at their schedule or their record and say whatever, but they’ve played a tough stretch with Kentucky, Missouri, Florida, Georgia, and Ole Miss. I mean, that’s a tough stretch of games, and they’ve been competitive at times in all of them. It’s a difficult place to play, and it’s got my full attention, and hopefully, our kids will be mature enough to approach this with the same hunger that they did last week.”
On Payton Thorne's performance against Mississippi State
“Well, he was really confident in the plan, and it showed. He probably left two throws out there that he should’ve thrown, in my opinion. He’ll agree when he sees the film. He had two other RPOs that probably should’ve been thrown. I thought he left the pocket early a couple times, but he did good things with it. He took care of the ball. But, outside of those four plays, it’s really hard to argue that he didn’t play really, really, really solid. He had one ball that was a little high, but you know, we gotta catch those too. I thought he played really solid, really confidently, and I thought our kids responded to that around him well.”
The chemistry between Thorne and his receivers
“Well, we protected (Payton) the best that we have. That makes a huge difference. Basically, we said we’re going to go back to what I’m used to. We’re going to play with some the tempo and we’re going to take our shots when we get them. We’re going to see if you guys rise to the occasion. In a lot of cases, they did. We have to continue to improve. There’s still some sloppy things with releases and correct stems, but the good thing is you can really teach hard off of games after you’ve won and say, ‘We can be better, guys. It was pretty good, but we can really improve this a lot.’ But it was really good to see our receivers get some confidence and make some plays. I think just simplifying down where we can play a little (more free) and faster was really beneficial.”
Thoughts on Alex McPherson and special teams
“I should have said that in my opening. I thought our special teams, outside of the penalty and the muffed kick that caused us a little field position, I thought our field goal unit was on point and I thought our punting unit, the job Oscar (Chapman) and them did to quick snap some of those deep kicks and still have them have to go 50 or 60 yards in the situations we were in during the second half, I thought they both did a great job.”
Alex McPherson's confidence
“Yeah, I coach him so I’ll take the credit (laughs). I wouldn’t know what to tell him. That comes from genetics. It’s in his genes. I’m extremely comfortable. On these next few road games, he plays a huge role in getting points we get in field position.”
Defensive coordinator Ron Roberts' contribution to the defense
“Well, he’s one of the best in the nation at calling games. We all have strengths and we all have weaknesses, and you want to play to your strengths. One of his strengths is definitely gameday, calling the football game from a defensive perspective and making the adjustments within the system. I think he is really, really gifted at that.”
The growth of Caleb Burton
“Yeah, he’s earned it. That’s what I want our program to get to. I think we live in a world now where the process of earning something is kind of lacking. He didn’t have it at first, but he kept working and working and working. If you keep putting on tape good things, then good things will come your way. That’s what happened to him. You’ll keep seeing him. Unless he just shuts it down in practice this week, you’ll keep seeing him. We had a shot for him, too. He was going to be open and got grabbed there.”
Offensive line's performance against Mississippi State
“Jake (Thornton) and I met last week, and I said I’m convinced that this is going to be better for us. Kam (Stutts) is a warrior that loves Auburn. He gives everything he can, but he is beat up. It is sad to see because he would love to go every rep. He is one the veterans that we should not let practice tomorrow, to try and get through the year with him. Gunner (Britton) was beat up some. So, we just need to rotate those guys. It is a long season. We have four more games. We need all those guys to play significant snaps, so I think rotating them is in our best interest. To handle all the stuff that Mississippi State throws at a team the way they did in the first half was remarkable. Truthfully, I expected a lot more negative play. They protected the quarterback well. Our O-line, I thought, played one of their better games.”
How to make Payton Thorne more comfortable
“There wasn’t really a conversation, it was just this is what we are doing and that’s it. This is what we are doing, and we’ll figure out which one can either do it or not and if none of them can we will cross that bridge when we get there. I think Payton loved it. I thought Robby showed some good things in practice too, but Payton obviously took the initiative and was playing well enough. That discussion wasn’t ugly, but you get to a point where the only thing that I know has got to be what I’m comfortable with and this is what I think we need to do. It’s not like they were fighting me on it. Usually it was, ‘All right, should we have this package with this?’ It was, ‘No, this is the only thing that we are going to do.”
The pace of play the rest of the season
“We look at everything. We look at the schedule and how it shakes out. What gives us the best chance to compete to have a chance to win games? We are not always right. Sometimes we are. All of that has been looked at and taken into account. I still say we are a few plays from being right there at the Georgia game and the Ole Miss game, for sure, doing the plan we had. All of that gets looked at, for sure. Can be effective in a tempo offense? You have to win first down, which we did the other day. Let me clarify, I absolutely want to play with tempo, but can you always know? No. I think Ole Miss goes as fast as anybody, but if you watch our game against them we did some things that got them out of that, that slowed them down. It’s not like I can just walk out there and say, ‘Hey, forget it.’ That’s not very wise, but when we have opportunities to we should be ready to, and that’s what we had gotten away from. If you don’t practice it, it‘s not going to happen with tempo. I do not care what you call it, you can call it a hurricane, but if you haven’t practiced it at hurricane pace it’s not going to be what you want. That’s what we had to get back to.”
Injury report of Izavion Miller and Marcus Harris
“I think both are going to be fine, nothing that seemed to be lingering.”
His thoughts on the 2023 recruiting haul
“I think the guys we were able to get to come our way from the high school ranks, in the short time we had, we hit on most of them, honestly. I don’t want to start to mention names because I will forget somebody, but all of those guys are going to have a real shot to play significant roles in our development here as a program.”
The difference between the first and second half of the Mississippi State game
“I think you all would all say that I have been very transparent with you guys since I’ve been here, maybe to a fault, but think genuine relationships ae like that. Will you permit me to be transparent with this and we can have an honest dialogue about it, OK? You guys can say whatever you want, whether it’s opinions or whether facts, and I saw many of you, that was your take on it. Do you realize we had one possession in the third quarter? What did we do on that? Got points, pretty good drive. Do you realize in the fourth quarter that we had the football on the minus three, the minus five, and the minus 14, and one possession on the 30 that I punted on fourth-and-one, but we were up two scores. Those were the only possessions we had. We were up three scores on one of them, two scores on the other and they’re bringing gut cross and super fill missile every play as we are backed up trying to get in the game. I was aggressive. I actually threw it for a first down, and we got called for a penalty and back. I threw it three times, which is pretty crazy probably. I would love, after this, for you to go show me what aggressive looks like, on the board, blocking super fill missile and gut cross. I want to know. Absolutely, that’s the facts. I don’t know how to be really more aggressive. That’s the possessions we had, that was it. I would’ve loved to have had some possessions like we did in the first quarter where we started at the 25 or the 30, but I promise you I was not going to be aggressive up two scores on the five-yard-line or three-yard-line and let something crazy happen on a tipped ball and they return it for a touchdown and all of the sudden momentum flips. That would not be based in good wisdom.“
What does he see from Vanderbilt's offense?
“I’m honestly impressed with some of the things they do. I don’t know what (AJ) Swann’s status is. I don’t really know if he can come back or not, but I would love to know that. (Ken) Seals and then this kid they brough in last week, (CJ) Taylor, is very athletic. That receiver is special, (Will) Shepherd. They make me nervous. You watch the way they competed against Georgia, particularly at home, I think they are a different team there. I’ve been impressed with Clark Lea every time I’ve been around him. They are going to be in the right spot. They are going to play hard. They are going to do the right things. If you go up there and you don’t get some momentum going your way, I’ve been there with a really good Ole Miss team, and it was tough. They have our full attention.”
Thoughts on running back play
“Damari (Alston), (Brian) Battie, and Jeremiah (Cobb) have all been impressive when they’ve got their chances, at times. Jarquez (Hunter) is obviously getting the bulk of the load right now and he has earned that with the way he practices, leads, and comes to work. Truthfully, we are not designing anything new. We are just getting better, he is getting better at being more patient and understanding the blocking, our line is getting better at blocking, and we are more balanced where the blocking may not be as heavy. I think all of that is a combination of why he is seeing more success.”
The confidence in receivers
“That was our message all week. Clear the clouds, clear whatever it is, and play fast and free. If we make a mistake, play the next play and we will evaluate it. Make too many, obviously, and we will have to go in another direction. The game plan is not going to be complicated. You are going to get plenty of reps at it, so go play loose and free and make some plays when they come your way. There is no question that there was more fun to be had. You are going to get tested again. We will have some game where we have three or four three-and-outs and that is when you really find out how you handle those times. That just tells you who you really are going to be long-term in life and that’s what we have to have from our team. Let’s just keep finding a way, and hopefully that is how we are going to respond, but they had more fun and obviously we played better.”