Head coach Mike Bianco met with the media Tuesday to preview the 2020 Ole Miss baseball season. The Rebels will open the year Friday at 4 p.m. CT at Swayze Field against No. 1 Louisville. A transcript of Bianco’s press conference can be found below, courtesy of Ole Miss Media Relations.

Opening Statement…

“It’s here. I cringe in saying it’s finally here. But it’s here. The guys, the players, the coaches are all super excited to get started on Friday. Been waiting for this moment for a while. It looks like the weather is going to clear up and we should have three really good days of baseball.

I know the fans are excited as well. We’re on the cusp of breaking another season ticket record, which is always good. When people talk about the atmosphere at Swayze Field, they talk about it being one of the best in the country. Opening up with No. 1 Louisville doesn’t hurt. It should make for a great weekend for college baseball, not only here in Oxford, but certainly a lot of people who will be following around the country.

Before we talk about the players individually and the positions, which I know everybody is waiting on, I was trying to think of what else to share with you. Over the last six months, one of the narratives understandably so, much has been asked about the No. 2 ranked recruiting class. The current freshmen and incoming transfers, and certainly that’s understandable. They’re a really talented crew. There are guys who certainly we’re going to count on to have some success on the field.

Another angle for you reporters has been the two football guys, Jerrion Ealy and John Rhys Plumlee. Two guys who are going to play two different sports, which is somewhat unusual these days, especially to be a star. Both of them were obviously stars on the football field a few months ago and have done well since putting on the baseball cleats and getting out here to our field. I think you’ll see them this weekend.

Probably the biggest narrative that we talk about in our coaches office and our staff is how understated the returners are. We have 20 new guys. Only 34 players on the roster, 20 of them are new—16 freshmen and four junior college transfers—but that makes for 14 returners. The returners are all guys who most of them have played huge roles in the program already. Most of them are guys who are stars, either All-Americans or Preseason All-Americans or Freshman All-Americans, guys who have already staked their claim to not only college baseball and the SEC but our program. Guys like Tyler Keenan and Anthony Servideo, Kevin Graham was a Freshman All-American as far as position players. When you look at the pitchers, last year when I stood up here, we had no returning weekend starters. This year, we return two of our weekend starters in Doug Nikhazy —Doug was a Freshman All-American — and of course, Gunnar Hoglund who pitched in the three spot for us last year the entire season from start to finish. Along with Taylor Broadway and Austin Miller. When I think of the narrative for this team, or when people say, ‘How are you going to be?’ That’s the first thing that comes to my mind. That’s what I think drives you. How well the returners, how well the leaders perform.

With that, I’ll go around the horn so to speak and talk about the players then leave it up to you for some questions. First, we’ll start with the pitchers. Friday night we’ll start Doug Nikhazy, Saturday we’ll start Gunnar Hoglund and on Sunday we’ll start true freshman Derek Diamond. Most of you, as I mentioned, are familiar with Gunnar and Doug. Derek won the role, I think just because from start to finish, from September to last weekend, he was probably the best performer of all the guys. He had an outstanding fall, and I think he gives us the best opportunity to win on Sundays. In the bullpen starting off, Austin MillerTaylor BroadwayGreer HolstonMax Cioffi—all familiar names, guys who have pitched in the program. Along with Braden ForsythJackson KimbrellBen Gilbert—an outstanding freshman left-handed arm—Drew McDaniel and several others. A lot of depth on this staff. A lot of our teams in the past, once we got past maybe the fourth pitcher, there was a drop-off. Here, one we get in that 5-10 range, there are a lot of capable guys. Guys who may end up having bigger roles as the season progresses.

Around the horn, the left side of the infield, Tyler Keenan at third base, Anthony Servideo at shortstop. As many of the beat writers know, there is a great competition going on at second base with Peyton Chatagnier and Justin Bench. At first base, another competition, but some of it just has to do with maneuvering guys from the outfield to the infield and DH. Tim Elko, team captain, is at first base along with junior college transfer Cael Baker who was the triple crown winner in junior college baseball last year. Behind the plate Friday night will be Hayden Dunhurst true freshman. Backing him up will be a sophomore who was with us last year, Knox Loposer. In the outfield is probably the most fluid situation, and I probably expect that to be that way for the first few weeks at least and into the month of March, close to conference play. We moved Kevin Graham into the outfield. He still could see some action at first base. Kevin, we wanted to give him the opportunity to play in the corner outfield much like we did with Tim Elko last year. Kevin Graham has been out in left field along with Hayden Leatherwood, another junior college transfer. In center field, Jerrion Ealy will start on Friday night. Also in center field is Cade Sammons, a true freshman from Jackson, Tennessee, who had a tremendous fall for us, led the team in stolen bases and hit close to the mid-.300s and has played well in this early spring. Right field, could be John Rhys Plumlee, any of the other guys who I’ve mentioned in the outfield to this point. And certainly, either Peyton Chatagnier or Justin Bench might do a little bit of the Anthony Servideo/Jacob Adams move that we did last year playing some right and some second base. Then at DH, Ben Van Cleve has played really well. Had a really good fall, so there are some options for us to maneuver some guys to get some at-bats.”

On Tim Elko’s versatility…

“That’s why it’s still a little fluid. We’ll try to play a little of the right/left matchup. As you know, I like to do that, especially early to give some guys the best shot to have success off the bat. With (Louisville’s Reid) Detmers throwing on Friday night, a left-handed guy, and Miller throwing right-handed on Saturday, it gives us an opportunity to play some different guys and hopefully get those guys off to some success. Tim is kind of that utility guy who can do anything. He can play third base for us. I think we feel comfortable that he can play corner outfield or corner infield.”

On how the 2019 signing class compares to the 2017 class…

“Of all the questions, I don’t know if anybody has asked that. I don’t know if I’ve given it a lot of thought that way. I think it’ll be different on this team. It’ll look different to you and a lot of people. And it’s probably unfair to this class. Maybe not of a ton of those guys will be starting. There’s no shortstop, but there is a center fielder and a catcher. I think it’s talented. It’s got some high-end pitchers. You see the first weekend we have a pitcher that will be starting out of that class. It’s very comparable without a doubt.”

On Derek Diamond earning the Sunday starter role…

“From the day that he stepped on campus, he has been the best guy for that role for us. He struggled a little bit the last couple of weeks, but it was really more, we did something a little different that we normally don’t do and thought we needed to do. Not for Derek’s sake but for the offense’s sake and the pitcher’s sake, we matched up, if you would, the better pitchers against the projected starting lineup the last two weeks. Ones versus ones and twos versus twos to use the football terminology. A little tougher for the pitchers to get them out. But Derek, from day one, if you look at all the outings, not just the last outing, he gives us the best opportunity to win. He’s going to throw the fastball in the low-90s. Has a hard slider at 80 miles per hour. Great competitor. A kid that looks the part, looks confident. I think that’s one of the challenges for the young kids. Are you ready for this? Not just physically, but mentally, do you believe you belong. I think he believes he belongs.”

On Wes Burton pushing for a starting role…

“Not necessarily for the first weekend, but every time someone has success, it’s noticed more so than the opposite, when somebody doesn’t do as well. If someone goes 0-fer. We all want to gravitate to success. Someone hits a home run in an intrasquad game, everyone notices it. Even more so in Wes’ case, because Wes missed most of the fall. He had that freak injury where he cut his finger up a little bit and couldn’t pitch, missed the majority of the fall. The fall was hard to gage him on. He had some good outings, he had some outings that weren’t as strong. It has certainly put him in a role. He threw five innings so he can get extended a little bit. Big, physical, 6-foot-8, right-hander, but he also showed last Sunday that he’ll throw it in the strike zone. He’ll be in the bullpen that first weekend.”

On Kevin Graham’s transition into the outfield….

“He handled it fine last year. The move was just to give us some more opportunities. He’s been ok. Average. So if you hit, that’s ok. He’s been good enough out there to play out there.”

On Hayden Dunhurst

“It’s hard to project. A lot of times when you say that, especially in these settings, it’s super positive. So it’s better to say just right now. Right now, the best compliment is he’s as good as any freshman catcher we’ve had right now, meaning your freshman year about to start the season. That’s in all the phases. When you watch games and you’re in the stands and in the dugout, you notice things positively. He’s shown a great arm and a great release this fall where he threw out a lot of baserunners. That’s probably caught most people’s attention. Because of Cooper Johnson leaving, and that was really his forte. So you start to turn some heads that way. As the fall progressed, he got better behind the plate receiving and blocking the ball. I don’t even know if better is the right adjective, probably just feeling more comfortable. We’re hard on catchers. The expectations are high back there. It’s not easy, especially when you first get here, because we can be tough on the catchers with our expectations and what we’re asking them to do. Not just the coaching part of it, but all they have to learn. All the signals and all the information that goes through the catcher. There’s a lot put on them. But he continued to get better throughout the fall. Not that it’s a surprise. He’s a high-profile kid coming in. A kid we had a lot of angst about during the draft, a guy who had to turn down a lot of money to get here. As the spring even gets here, he’s continued to swing it really well. He hit three home runs since we’ve been back over the last three weeks. He’s ready.”

On versatility in the outfield competition…

“I don’t know if it’s something that we necessarily look at. I don’t know if we’re the only program doing that. Heck, I’ve got a son who is doing that at one of our competitor schools. I just know that the middle infielders know that they can run out there and catch the ball. We’ve done it with a lot of guys. Most recently with Ryan OlenekWill GolsanAnthony ServideoKyle Watson did it for us. Infielders tend to think it’s pretty easy if you don’t have to catch it when it’s bouncing and you don’t have to throw it to a base, they think the position’s pretty easy. And they sometimes make it look pretty easy out there.”

On playing No. 1 Louisville while trying to evaluate the roster…

“We would want to say, hey, these are the three guys. A positive way of looking at it is that sometimes the three you pick aren’t the right three. The competition and being able to play some different guys out there is going to give them the opportunity to get some at-bats and some playing time, which is always a good thing, especially for some new faces. The truth is, as good as Louisville is, I’m sure they have some areas like that. Just because it’s fluid or just because you may see some different guys in there doesn’t necessarily mean that this is intramurals where you’re just on a whim throwing some people out there. These are guys we think can compete and some of it will be a right-handed/left-handed thing. Some of it is just to find out who is going to play, who is going to perform out there. It’s a little different when you turn the lights. It’s a little different when you’re playing somebody for real. Some guys excel in that. Some guys don’t. We’ve got to find out the ones who do.”

On how many guys will play in the outfield…

“Probably at least the six I mentioned. It’s not intramurals, so it’s not like it will necessarily be even, but if you’re counting bodies, it probably will be six. If Elko runs out there, it might be seven.”

On the progression of the JUCO transfers…

“A lot of times, and I’m a believer in it, I don’t think you can base your whole recruiting class off of a bunch of junior college kids. The turnover rate is so quick that it’s hard to sustain that. You can have some ups and downs. I’ve always been a believer that if you need an immediate fix, if you need somebody, sometimes it’s easier to get a kid who is 21 years old who has played a couple of years past high school to come in and give your program a shot in the arm and that immediate need. That’s why you do that. A good example but hopefully he’s at that hump that you’re talking about is a Cael Baker, who really had a bad fall statistically and really struggled. The kid obviously can hit and is a really good baseball player, but he was the leading hitter this spring. And he looks different. It’s amazing when you have a little success and start to believe and have a little confidence how different you look on the baseball field.”

On Cael Baker

“I’m sure if you ask him, he may have something. Sometimes that physical adjustment lends itself to some more confidence and feeling better. In baseball, we use terms like, ‘I’m not comfortable,’ or ‘I’m not feeling it.’ People really can’t articulate what it means. A lot of times that just means I’m not real confident right now. For whatever reason, he struggled in the beginning and it snowballed on him throughout the fall. He looks real good right now.”

On Nikhazy and Hoglund this year compared to last…

“That’s one of the neat things about being a coach and coaching college baseball players. They’re at an age where they change a lot. Not just physically but emotionally and mentally. To watch guys when they’re freshmen become sophomores or sophomores become juniors and leaders. Both of those guys, because of their roles last year, even at a young age, a lot was put on those guys. You write all the stories about the freshmen and come May, you stop writing that they’re freshmen anymore. But the truth of the matter is that they are. They’re young. When you’re in a Super Regional and you have two freshmen pitching the last two games. There’s a lot on those guys. They deserve that, but I think that’ll weather you. That’ll strengthen you. We saw that in Ryan Rolison. Going into his sophomore year, where it wasn’t easy his freshman year. He started off in the bullpen and became a weekend starter. But he was a different guy come his sophomore year and felt like a leader. I think we’ve seen that in Gunnar and Doug. They just act different. They are the leaders of the staff. They carry themselves with an air of confidence. That’s good. We need that.”

On Diamond learning from Nikhazy and Gunnar on being a freshman starter…

“I think it’s good. Last year, Doug had Will Ethridge, but Will was a reliever. It wasn’t like Rolison was there to show him the ropes and to lead him. It’s probably nice to have a couple of guys who were just freshmen the year before and were put into that weekend rotation. How do you handle it and the ups and downs and so on.”