Hugh Freeze lay down in his office last night, combatting a headache on the eve of a National Signing Day that he knew would be different than any other one he’d experienced before. At the time, the pain in his head specifically stemmed from trying to figure out what he was going to do at running back.
He’d already missed on Cam Akers, the most prized recruit in the state of Mississippi in nearly a decade, and four-star Corrdavian Richardson from Memphis was far from a certainty. Presbyterian Christian School running back Isaiah Woullard was certainly available but carried the stigma that comes with a skill position player playing in a private school league.
“Without going into the recruitment of others, we really could’ve had a lot of backs we wanted,” Freeze said. “But it comes a point sometimes in your gut, and I got it in my gut last night, and I called (running backs coach Derrick) Nix down and laid in my office for a little while my head was hurting. It comes a point where you need to do the right thing, and the right thing for us was to sign the state’s all-time leading rusher in Isaiah Woullard.”
But in a way, Freeze’s headache has stemmed from similar but larger uncertainties regarding his football program. He’s dealt with an overhaul of his coaching staff in the months leading up to arguably the most important recruiting season of his tenure, given the plunge in performance on the field in 2016. And above all else, he’s had to navigate through a thick and hazy cloud that’s a byproduct of a now four-year long NCAA investigation.
“It was a very difficult time. A lot of roller coaster rides in the recruiting process this year, probably more than others, even though that’s always part of it. But with our other issues, it made it very difficult,” Freeze said. “We really had to fight together and stay together, and our deal was consider it all joy. We have a great place to sell and a great environment to present to people if we can get them on campus. Our staff did a remarkable job of holding things together with staff changes and with the issues we have going on around our program.”
Similar to how he thought about Woullard as his head pounded in his office, he had to do the same with the other 21 names he selected. As part of the self-imposed sanctions Ole Miss punished itself with last summer, it docked itself three scholarships, shrinking the standard 25 soft cap per class. The margin for error became thinner, and recruiting became harder. These prospects had questions about the future of the program and when that cloud might turn into a storm.
“Anything that was already public, I could talk about. Other than that, just gave them a timeframe of when our best guess was that this could be moving in what direction,” Freeze said. “I was able to give them what I considered to be an educated guess on worst-case scenarios. We didn’t run from it. We hit it head-on.”
He told them that they’d already been serving punishments for the last couple years, something that wasn’t well-known. The mere mention of the NCAA in a conversation with a recruit immediately prods the elephant in the room.
On top of all that, there were needs to be addressed, particularly on the defensive side of the football. Ole Miss was horrid against the run, and the linebacking play was nonexistent.
Freeze and his staff signed five in the class.
“We have length, which is something we haven’t had enough of. These ‘backers are long. Really excited about Baker and seeing what he can develop into,” Freeze said.
He looked down at the podium, gazing at the list of names he’d hauled in. He spoke about the gratitude he had for the guys in this class, who signed despite hearing things from other programs about the fate of Ole Miss and the NCAA, “some true and some not,” as Freeze put it.
“I probably feel great about this class for several different reasons, one of which is that these young men chose to come to our great university and our program amid extreme pressure, amid extreme rhetoric that they’ve had to hear,” he said. “And yet, they and their families found this place to be the best fit for them under those circumstances, and for that, I’ll always be indebted to this group.”
But as much gratitude as he had, there was anguish, too. Annoyance at how long this investigation has lasted and the uncertainty it’s brought. Anger at other schools exploiting on Ole Miss’ misfortunes, which he noted was their fault.
“It was ugly. I didn’t enjoy it,” he said.
But some of it he felt was personal.
“I’m the leader of the program, so everything is directed pretty much at you. Some of it was personal with some people probably,” Freeze said. “I don’t talk about other schools in recruiting, and I won’t do that, and our staff is in charge to do the same. Unfortunately, there were several others that thought it was a prime opportunity to use that in recruiting, and that’s the route they go. I won’t forget who they are.”
Freeze understands the predicament the program is in–one with no clear end in sight. He gets why prospects would go elsewhere, and he’s aware enough to know that its cost him some blue chip recruits. Names like Cam Akers, Walker Little and Willie Gay, among others.
But it’s the reality of where this program sits. It’s the cards Freeze has been dealt, and he did well to play the game with his hands tied to a degree this time, and now he’s ready to work with the ones he was able to get through to.
“How much difference is there in the No. 10 ranked class and the No. 40 ranked class? I don’t know,” Freeze said. “Probably very small. Those top 10, there is some difference. After that, it depends on what the kid does when he gets there.”