Shoring up defensive inadequacies was the core target of head coach Hugh Freeze and his staff’s recruiting strategy this offseason. Losing Fadol Brown and Tony Bridges from a defense that was already ranked near or at the bottom of most statistical categories presented Ole Miss’ staff with a daunting task. But with the help a strong Signing Day push, the Rebels nabbed commitments from key prospects and added much-needed depth to an inexperienced defensive unit.
“I feel fantastic about this class for several reasons. These men chose our program amid extreme pressure and amid extreme rhetoric (about the program),” Freeze said. “I stand today feeling very great about the class that has joined us, for that reason first. Secondly, I think we addressed a lot of needs that we have.”
Ole Miss’ defense was its achilles heel in 2016; it ranked 111th out of 128 teams in total defense last season, so it’s no surprise that of the 21 players in the signing class, 14 play on the defensive side of the ball. Freeze’s class included five linebackers, five defensive backs and and four lineman.
Freeze didn’t didn’t shy away from his recruiting motivations, either.
“Getting the defense fixed, and defense (overall), was the priority of the class,” Freeze said. “Coach Scott and coach Mcgriff, with their ties, we were able to fill specific needs on defense.”
Last season’s defense ranked 96th nationally in sacks, 70th in tackles for loss and 126th in red zone defense. Freeze and his staff, in order to right these glaring defensive shortfalls, signed two ends and two tackles. Freeze levied specific praise toward defensive tackle commit Tae-Kion Reed out of Columbus.
“I think he’s going to be another one of these 6-foot-4 guys just waiting to be developed and blow up,” Freeze said. “I think he’ll grow into a big, dominant football player on the line.”
Reed committed to the Rebels with a little more flare than perhaps some others. In typical fashion, with hats sitting in front of him emblazoned with his schools of choice, Reed reached for the Mississippi State hat. Instead of fitting it to his head and delighting the school down in Starkville, Reed flung the hat across the room, picked up the Ole Miss hat and fit it snugly upon his head. When asked about Reed’s behavior, Freeze couldn’t help but smile.
Linebacker was arguably the position in which Ole Miss needed most to get better. The Rebels were bad against the run a year a go, and it was mainly due to inefficiencies at linebacker. The staff addressed that by signing five of them in this class.
“It was well-documented that this was the place we needed to improve,” Freeze said.
The Rebels signed a deep class of linebackers, highlighted by four-star recruits Breon Dixon and Mohamed Sanogo. Freeze was also very high on Zikerron Baker, of Minden, Louisiana.
Freeze characterized Baker as a “hidden gem, a Mike Hilton-type guy.”
“He’s long. He’s tough. When you grab his arm, you feel like he’s been swinging an axe handle. He’s one of these country-born, Louisiana kids who isn’t all about the hoopla. He’s just excited to get in here and work,” Freeze said.
Ole Miss reeled in one of its long-time commitments in D.D. Bowie, who is an ESPN top-100 guy and the highest-rated player in the Rebels’ signing class. He’d been committed for more than a year, but Mississippi State made a late push at him, and Bowie had been wavering, but in the end, he chose to stay with the Rebels.
Despite being listed as a receiver, Bowie has expressed he intends to play on the defensive side of the ball at corner, much to the delight of Freeze. Ole Miss already has an embarrassment of riches at the wide receiver position, so adding a big athletic corner in Bowie to an under-performing secondary will be key for the Rebels’ defensive outlook.
“D.D. is a guy that we think is as athletic a kid that has come out of this state since I’ve been here. He’s just really athletic,” Freeze said.
After a disappointing 5-7 season in 2016, Freeze and the Rebels will look to bounce back with youth and a balanced incoming crop of freshmen and junior college transfers in 2017. Not every recruiting season will produce a top-five class. But where the Rebels lacked in brand-name notoriety, they gained in depth and needs filled.
“That’s what Signing Day should always be about,” Freeze said. “There’s a lot of great players, but you got to address the needs that you have, and we certainly believe that we did that.”