As this year’s National Signing Day draws to a close, so does Matt Luke’s first recruiting period at the helm of the ship.
“We’re really excited about this class,” Luke said in a press conference Wednesday afternoon. “We were able to address our needs at every position.”
After inking 15 signees during the first-ever Early Signing Period in December, Ole Miss added seven more recruits to the 2018 class Wednesday.
In a year filled with off-field chaos, this Rebel class finds itself in the nation’s top 30, a testament to the coaching staff’s talent and determination.
“All the credit to our coaching staff for staying positive,” Luke said. “We were so excited and just went out and sold Ole Miss.”
Despite 13 scholarship reductions over a four-year period, vacated wins and a fine of just under $180,000, these new recruits still found the prospect of playing in Oxford too tempting to pass up. Still, Luke said he and his staff refuse to relax until they see a player’s signature on the line.
“When all the uncertainty went away, we were in a great position for a lot of players, and I think Ole Miss sells itself,” Luke said. “If we get players on campus, there’s a good chance that they’re coming here.”
In this year’s class, Luke found the right pieces to fill Ole Miss’ positional needs. After struggling defensively in 2017, specifically with second-level tackling, the staff focused on adding depth behind the line.
“It was much documented that we needed help at linebacker. We were able to get some length and some size at linebacker.” Luke said. “We have three 6-foot-4-plus linebackers. I thought that was huge to get some size and some big guys who could grow into big SEC linebackers.”
Breeland Speaks and Marquis Haynes, two of the Rebels’ more consistent defenders in 2017, both elected not to return in 2018, leaving gaping holes in defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff’s gameplan. But with recruits like Noah Jefferson, Quentin Bivens, KD Hill and Hal Northern, Luke has raised the bar for incoming defensive talent. These recruits, among others, are expected to contribute significant minutes to a young Ole Miss team next fall.
“On the defensive line I think it’s important for us to add size.” Luke said. “We definitely did that with Noah (Jefferson). He is a big guy that can anchor in the middle.”
Jefferson, a 6-foot 4-inch defensive tackle, is transferring in from Arizona Western Junior College, where he rose to the No. 19 prospect in this year’s JUCO class. Prior to playing in Arizona, Jefferson, a five-star recruit out of high school, joined University of South Carolina before leaving to join Arizona Western. He is expected to compete for Speaks’ position.
Another player to keep an eye on is Tylan Knight, a sturdy 5-foot-7-inch cornerback from Pearl. Despite being the lowest-rated signee in the 2018 Rebels class, Luke holds Knight in high regard.
“Probably the steal of the class is Tylan Knight. Everywhere I went in the state of Mississippi, they were saying, ‘This kid is the best player in the state.’” Luke said. “If we picked the Mississippi/Alabama game over again, this kid would be picked first.”
Luke also used this class to bolster his rush options after Jordan Wilkins, the Rebels’ first 1,000-yard rusher since 2009, played his final collegiate snap in November. With veterans D’Vaughn Pennamon and Eric Swinney still in recovery, Luke is counting on JUCO signee Scottie Phillips to help fill Wilkins’ shoes.
“The one that comes to mind is Scottie Phillips,” Luke said when asked which recruits could contribute immediately. “Just because of having to replace Jordan Wilkins, that’s the one that pops into your mind.”
As questions about Ole Miss’ NCAA sanctions and appeal continue to swirl, fans in Oxford can feel confident knowing their team captured a talented 2018 class.
“Just top to bottom, we were able to address a bunch of needs with this class,” Luke said. “And I’m really, really excited.”