Obviously the hire of Hugh Freeze has created some controversy both on this website and among the college football commentariat at large. We've certainly aired our share of recriminations here, myself included, but I did promise to write an article about Hugh Freeze's offenses, which will hopefully enlighten everyone and help bring us to a mutual understanding, at least regarding on-field matters.
As you've no doubt heard, Hugh Freeze and former Auburn coach Gus Malzahn are friends, and their offenses unsurprisingly are very similar to one another. The two coaches were among the initial pioneers of the hurry-up, no huddle offense at the high school level in the late 1990s and early 2000s. If you were an Auburn fan during Gus Malzahn's tenures as the Tigers' offensive coordinator and head coach, you probably have a good idea of what Freeze's offense will look like. Like Gus, Freeze runs an up-tempo, run-first spread offense. The core concepts are also similar: inside zone, outside zone, power, and counter make up the bulk of the run calls. These concepts are dressed up with read option and RPO concepts, but, crucially, there's no new teaching involved for the offensive line. The defense thinks they're seeing a lot of different plays while the offense knows it's just doing the same things over and over again. As is the case with Gus' offense, most of the passing game is made up of quick throws off RPOs, screens, and play-action shots down the field off of post, vertical, and wheel concepts.
Freeze has generally incorporated a few more dropback passing concepts than Gus does; I can't find the source of the quote anymore, but Freeze once described his offense as a combination between Gus Malzahn's run game and Noel Mazzone's passing game. Mazzone, who was Tommy Tuberville's offensive coordinator at Ole Miss and at Auburn from 1999 to 2001, has since become known for his passing offense, featuring concepts similar to those that form the basis of the air raid (snag, stick, shallow, mesh, Y Cross, four verticals). Mazzone had another brief stint at Ole Miss (although he and Freeze didn't overlap there) and made another return to the SEC under Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M; he now markets his offense to high school coaches as the NZone System. How much Freeze took directly from Mazzone isn't clear (since most offenses use most of those concepts in some form), but Mazzone was the person he cited as his primary influence in that area.
Anyway, enough walls of text, let's get into what you're here for, looking at Freeze's offenses with the help of some film. The first clip we're going to take a look at is from Hugh Freeze's first stint as a playcaller at the Division I level, at Arkansas State in 2010. If that triggers something in your memory, it should! Freeze's first game as Arkansas State's coach was at Auburn, the first game of the season that would ultimately end with Auburn winning its first national championship in 53 years. This is entirely coincidental, of course, but fun nonetheless, and we can all use a little fun right now.
Right off the bat you can see that this play has a very Gus Malzahn vibe to it. The Red Wolves line up in a bunch set and run counter, one of their base runs, to the left. (I should note that unlike Gus, Freeze does know that you're allowed to run counter to the right as well.) The entire offensive line blocks down toward the backside, while the H-back pulls to the front side; the original idea on this play was for him to kick out the defensive end (#45, Antoine Carter) and open up the B gap, but Carter correctly tries to "wrong shoulder" the block and occupy the gap the pulling H-back is trying to open up. As a result, the guard instead executes what's called a log block, sealing the defensive end inside and allowing the RB to bounce the ball to the outside for a solid gain. The Red Wolves add a bit of misdirection as well, faking the sweep to the flanker (something Gus was also quite fond of), which helps freeze the linebackers (no pun intended) and allow the linemen to get onto their blocks more easily, resulting in a clean running lane and a nice gain on first down.
The thing you should understand about this play is that at the time of this game, it had already been eleven years since Hugh Freeze told an 8th grade student at Briarcrest Christian School, where he served as the head coach, to remove her shirt (which he claimed violated the dress code) in his presence. It was around the same time that another student reported that Freeze paddled her, rather than getting a female teacher to do it as was the standard procedure. While these allegations didn't come to light until 2017, it was clear a decade before this play happened that Freeze had a tendency to engage in creepy behavior toward women or, at best, failed to exercise proper judgment in his interactions with his female students.
The next clip I want to look at comes from Freeze's first season as the head coach at Ole Miss. While Arkansas State's aforementioned 2010 season had been a disappointment, Freeze nonetheless took over as the team's head coach the next year, leading them to a 10-3 record and a perfect 8-0 in the Sun Belt, capturing Freeze his first and only conference title at the college level. Freeze parlayed that success into the head coaching job at Ole Miss, after Houston Nutt (remember that name) was relieved of his duties following a 2-10 record in 2011 (the two wins would, hilariously enough, be subsequently vacated due to allegations of academic misconduct during Nutt's tenure).
This is Ole Miss' first touchdown of Freeze's tenure in their home opener against FCS Central Arkansas. This play is essentially an inverted version of inside zone read. Unlike a typical zone read, where the QB is reading the backside DE and will either hand off to the RB running inside zone or keep it himself and run to the outside, here the RB runs the outside path and the QB runs the inside zone. This is similar to the power read (or inverted veer) play that Auburn leaned on heavily during its championship run with Cam Newton at the helm, just with a different blocking scheme. Bo Wallace, the first in a line of mercurial Ole Miss QBs under Freeze, sees the DE stay at home so he keeps it himself, makes one cut, and is off to the races (thanks in part to some excellent downfield blocking from the wide receiver).
What you should keep in mind here is that the academic improprieties that brought down Freeze's predecessor, Houston Nutt, never stopped despite the change in leadership, and would continue unabated throughout Freeze's tenure. These violations included assistants fraudulently filling in answers on recruits' ACT exams so that they could qualify to attend Ole Miss. It's not clear whether Freeze directly instructed to do this, but it's difficult to imagine them just doing this of their own initiative and completely without Freeze's knowledge. The NCAA agreed and ultimately slapped Freeze's program with a failure to monitor charge, a major infraction. Freeze attempted to blame the entire thing on Nutt, which would come back to haunt him later on.
The next clip I want to look at comes from the first drive of the first game of the following season, the Rebels' 2013 opener against Vanderbilt in Nashville. This play showcases some of Freeze's play-action passing game, in this case coming off their most basic run concept, inside zone. This is Y Cross, a simple weakside flood concept from a 2x2 set. The outside receiver runs a vertical, the inside receiver runs a quick out, and the backside slot receiver runs a deep crossing route. This concept is a staple of the air raid offense and it's one of the main downfield concepts for coaches like Mike Leach. It's designed to attack single-high (or middle-of-field-closed) coverages like cover 3 by putting three receivers at different depths along the sideline, where the defense only has two zone defenders ("flooding" the zone with receivers). The QB's read is just a simple short-to-deep progression (vertical-cross-out). Wallace sees the corner bail with the vertical and drops it off to the slot receiver on the deep cross for a first down.
More importantly, this was also the first career snap of Laremy Tunsil, the Rebels' left tackle. Tunsil was the #4 overall recruit in the country, who was part of the Rebels' unprecedented 2013 recruiting class, which ranked #8 in the country (a dramatic improvement from their #48 ranked class in 2012) and also included the #1 overall prospect, DE Robert Nkemdiche. At the end of the 2015 season, after winning his second straight first-team all SEC honors, Tunsil declared for the NFL draft, where he was seen by many analysts as one of the best offensive tackle prospects in years; some analysts expected him to be the number 1 overall pick. However, about 10 minutes before the draft began, things began to unravel. In one of the wildest incidents in the history of college football, someone hacked Tunsil's Twitter account, posting a photo of him smoking weed through a gas mask bong. Almost simultaneously, someone accessed Tunsil's Instagram and posted a screenshot of him soliciting cash from an associate AD at Ole Miss, ostensibly to help his mother pay his rent. Tunsil tumbled down the draft board before the Miami Dolphins took him with the 13th pick. Tunsil overcame this inauspicious start to his pro career and has made two Pro Bowls with the Houston Texans, but the revelation of the impermissible benefits Tunsil received spelled the beginning of the end for Freeze's time at Ole Miss, as they would turn out to be just the tip of the iceberg in terms of people affiliated with the program paying players under the table, and would ultimately result in an NCAA charge for lack of institutional control, the most severe violation the NCAA can assess.
Completing Tunsil's arc on the field, we have this play from the 2016 Sugar Bowl, in which the Rebels defeated Oklahoma State to finish the season with a 10-3 record and a #10 ranking in the AP poll.
This play shows that, like Gus, Freeze likes to get tricky sometimes. The Rebels line up in a Wildcat formation (although not a true Wildcat since QB Chad Kelly is still taking the snap), with an unbalanced line, meaning the backside tackle (Tunsil) is eligible by position (although not by number). Because he's ineligible by number, Tunsil can only catch a pass if it's a lateral. Ole Miss shows jet sweep motion, Kelly takes a long ride on the mesh as if it's a power read or similar type of play, and then turns and throws the ball to Tunsil, who has dropped back to be level with Kelly so that he's eligible to catch a pass. The entire Oklahoma State defense chases the motion and rollout to the opposite side, and Tunsil waltzes into the end zone for a touchdown as the Rebels cruised to a victory over the Cowboys to cap their best season yet under Freeze.
The main thing you should take away from this play is that right around the same time, Freeze was making yet more questionable decisions in terms of his personal conduct. Records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act during Houston Nutt's defamation lawsuit against Ole Miss, stemming from Freeze blaming him for all of the academic violations that took place during his tenure, showed that during this time, Freeze had been using his university-issued phone to make calls to escort services. While this was not part of the NCAA's case against Freeze and private sexual conduct between consenting adults is hardly the worst thing Freeze has on his record, it was nonetheless a violation of the morals clause of his contract, and before the 2017 season began, Ole Miss AD Ross Bjork told Freeze to resign or be fired for cause; Freeze chose the former and his tenure at Ole Miss ended in disgrace. Just for fun, most of the wins during his tenure there were subsequently vacated and the most successful period in the post-integration history of Ole Miss football, including the two much-ballyhooed wins over Alabama, officially never happened.
Of course I would be remiss not to include Freeze's most recent stop, his rehab stint at Liberty University. This period of Freeze's career is probably best known among Auburn fans for his revitalization of the career of former Auburn QB Malik Willis, who became a third-round draft pick in the spring of this year This play comes from the Flames' season opener this year, a wild four-overtime victory over Southern Miss, with the Flames edging the Golden Eagles in the second round of the two-point conversion shootout. Apologies for the triggering the PTSD of everyone who watched the 2021 Iron Bowl, but it's an interesting play and I wanted to show it.
This is almost identical to a play that Gus Malzahn ran at Auburn and continues to use at UCF. The Flames start from an unbalanced set before shifting into a standard pistol set and bringing a receiver in jet motion from the short side of the field. Like Gus, Freeze likes to use jet sweep motion, both to run jet sweep and to misdirect the defense by inducing them to flow with the jet motion before attacking the other side of the field, like they do here.
Despite all the eye candy, this is a pretty simple play. The QB fakes a handoff to the RB and then rolls out to the right on a bootleg. This is where I'll editorialize a bit and say that I really don't like rolling the QB out in red zone and 2-point conversion situations; the amount of space you have to work with is already reduced by the back of the end zone, and by rolling out, you're cutting the remaining space in half, and it's even more problematic when you're rolling to the short side of the field like this. This isn't just one of my usual ideological tangents though; there's data that backs this up. In this case, it works out though, and I suspect this was something Freeze had gameplanned based on how Southern Miss played coverage into the boundary. The Flames are using a simple high-low concept here, with the tight end running a corner route and the H-back coming across to run an arrow route. The defense honestly covers it pretty well, but the TE is able to get some separation and QB makes a nice throw to find him in the back of the end zone for the score, and the Flames' defense came up with a stop against the Eagles on their subsequent 2-point attempt to secure the win.
The most important thing to remember about this play, however, is that it came less than eight weeks after Freeze sent an unsolicited direct message on Twitter to Chelsea Andrews, a sexual assault survivor who has filed a lawsuit against Liberty University, which she claims mishandled the case when she reported her assault to school administrators. Andrews had been critical of Liberty's decision to hire Ian McCaw, the former athletic director at Baylor, who had been fired in the wake of the Baylor sexual assault scandal. During the investigation, it was determined that McCaw, along with former Baylor head coach Art Briles, had been told by another coach at the university that a female student-athlete had been gang-raped by a group of Baylor football players in April 2013 and that the two men chose not to act on that information and did not report it to the university's office of judicial affairs, despite their contractual and legal obligation to do so. This incident was more than three years before news of the scandal broke, meaning that not only did McCaw know about the incident, he was more than content to cover it up and go on with his life until the truth was exposed years later. A sexual assault survivor like Andrews was well within her right to criticize her university for hiring such a man when she had already experienced the university mishandling her sexual assault case prior to McCaw being hired.
Apparently, however, Hugh Freeze not only had no sympathy for the trauma Andrews had suffered, but took umbrage at her completely valid criticism of McCaw's past behavior and Liberty's decision to hire him knowing that he had been involved in the Baylor scandal and had been accused of wrongdoing. Given Freeze's prominent and well-paid position within the university and Andrews' vulnerable status both as a survivor of a sexual assault and as a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the university, the intent of his action is abundantly clear: to silence her criticism of McCaw. Incredibly, Freeze claims that McCaw, who, again, failed in his duty to report a gang-rape for three years, is "the most Jesus like [sic] leader I have", which seems to blatantly contradict Jesus' own admonition to beware of false prophets and that you would know people by their fruit instead of their words.. Even more incredibly, despite being aware of Andrews' allegations against Freeze, Auburn did not speak to her at all despite claiming to have gone above and beyond in their due diligence on Freeze, showing that claim to be risible on its face. Freeze, despite crying some crocodile tears at his press conference, has never really apologized for this or any of the previous offenses I've discussed in this article and brings all of those offenses with him to Auburn.
Oh, sorry, I guess those weren't the offenses y'all wanted me to write about? Well, unfortunately, they're the only ones the rest of the college football world will see when they look at Auburn football, no matter what the Xs and Os look like on the field. All I can say is I hope it was worth it.