When Hugh Freeze took over as head coach at Ole Miss, he said he had to get the Rebels out of the wilderness. Freeze said he had to get his team to be competitive week in and week out in the SEC and recruit at a high level.
This past season, Ole Miss and Freeze accomplished part one, going 7-6 in his first season. On Wednesday, he completed the second part, landing 23 prospects that garnered the Rebels a spot in the top 10 in all four major recruiting services’ class rankings, including the No. 2 recruiting class on 247sports.com and No. 5 class on ESPN – the best rankings in program history.
This year’s class is highlighted by four five-star signees – defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, safety Antonio Conner and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell. Ole Miss also had six four-star recruits to help bolster the class to a place a Rebel recruiting class has never gone.
“Obviously we are thrilled today,” Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said. “I just left the Quarterback Club meeting, and to just see the passion and energy of the Ole Miss people, we take a great sense of pride in knowing that we can bring joy to the Rebel faithful.
“It was thrilling to obviously finish strong today and the year-long plan that we had.”
Freeze and his staff’s year-long plan appeared to be just the right thing to land their desired targets, and he had nothing but praise for his staff on the job they did in the recruiting process. However, a little added assistance from players did not go unnoticed by the head coach.
“Our staff, who I think we have some of the rising stars in this profession, and the way they went about recruiting and building relationships over the course of a year and executing our 12-month plan, they were pretty flawless in most regards,” Freeze said. “But also our players. I cannot give them enough credit. They sold our program.
“I’ve often believed and will say that if we can get a young man to campus, and they can see the beauty of Ole Miss, the passion of its people, the love that they all have for this great university, the fact that it has a rich tradition, is something we use in recruiting here.”
Despite the rich history of the program, which includes six conference championships and three national titles, Ole Miss hasn’t seen a lot of success in its recent history in regard to championships. Therefore, Freeze takes a different approach than most coaches when going after top targets.
“The biggest vision we have is to do something new and fresh and convince a group of young men to come together and want to be different,” Freeze said. “To do something different and fresh at a place that may not be the norm. That is what we went about in this recruiting class.”
With Ole Miss’ success in this year’s recruiting class, the Rebels have received a great deal of national exposure.
Ole Miss was featured extensively in ESPNU’s recruiting coverage throughout the day, Freeze had an appearance on Fox News with Ole Miss alum Shepard Smith, and NBA star LeBron James even spoke out on Twitter about the Rebels’ impressive recruiting class.
“Ole Miss ain’t messing around today! Big time recruits coming in. SEC is crazy,” James tweeted.
The exposure was certainly something to which Freeze paid attention, and he believes it could help him build more top classes in the years to come.
“I don’t think you could go out and purchase the exposure we got today,” Freeze said. “It is unbelievable. This class and the exposure that we received today is already helping us in 2014. It gives us some momentum. It gives us some validity, and now, we can use it to hopefully start building some relationships with some national guys. We can’t go after an enormous amount, but we can go after some.
“They definitely heard about Ole Miss and probably are intrigued about what exactly is going on there and want to see it for themselves and hopefully get to know us. If they get to know our staff, it kind of gets contagious that people want to play for these coaches.”
Although the outcome of signing day was one for the ages for Ole Miss, the path to the end wasn’t necessarily an easy one.
Freeze was forced to deal with numerous people, a good many over social media networks, questioning how Ole Miss, Freeze and his staff were recruiting and ultimately landing high-caliber recruits. Freeze said he was shocked to see such accusations of recruiting violations directed at him and the program.
“I was really shocked,” Freeze said. “I know people have their own opinions and feel the freedom now in social media to voice that very freely, and I was shocked at how much it was.”
A large part of the Rebels’ success at landing top guys was the connections they had. Obviously, Nkemdiche is brothers with Ole Miss linebacker Denzel. Treadwell went to the same high school as Rebel defensive back Anthony Standifer, while Wesley McGriff, who was the leading recruiter for Treadwell, had a past friendship with Treadwell’s high school coach.
“We had a plan, we executed our plan,” Freeze said. “Obviously, we had some luck to have some ins to some of those, and I readily admit that, but we did it with integrity within our coaching staff.”
Despite the criticism, Freeze believes that the class he is brought in this year has the potential to be something special — a program-changing type of class.
“Today was a hugely successful day,” Freeze said. “And I do think it has the possibility of being a program changer. Obviously, it is all on paper right now. We’ll start having to manage expectations right now because we will still be in our second year of our journey together, but I do think we took a huge step forward together today on that journey, and that is competing for an SEC West championship.”
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— Matt Sigler