Since his hiring in December of 2011, Ole Miss has improved by one game in each of its four completed seasons under head coach Hugh Freeze (7-6, 8-5, 9-4, 10-3), which can be credited to Freeze and his staff’s unique approach to roster building. That approach includes an unrivaled commitment to a relentless recruiting strategy, which starts each morning with a daily recruiting-only meeting. These meetings routinely run over the allotted time, and feature ongoing dialogue about prospects and potential fits for the program, especially prospects with natural ins and well-established relationships with Ole Miss.
In addition to their successful strategy of targeting and eventually landing certain highly-rated players, they’ve also had plenty of luck and good fortune along the way. Many of the premier players on the current roster are the product of taking chances on unheralded prospects they saw real potential in.
“I think the biggest thing Hugh Freeze has changed, in my eyes, is he’s recruited with no fear,” Scout.com national recruiting analyst Chad Simmons said. “Don’t just bypass a kid because you think he’s going to Alabama, LSU, Texas or whoever it may be. Go in there, recruit the kid and see if you can take a kid out of Georgia or Texas or Louisiana. That’s been the biggest thing I’ve seen. In the past, 10 years ago, whether it was Houston Nutt or whoever running the program, you’d see Ole Miss — I don’t want to say skip over a guy ‘cause they’re too good to play for them — but they kind of recruited that way a little bit. Ole Miss, now, has gone in with the mindset they’re going to recruit the best players to compete with the best programs. You’ve got to have great players to compete with the best programs. You’ve got to develop guys.”
Of the 49 players currently listed on the Rebels’ two-deep depth chart, only 21 were ranked four-star-or-better as high school prospects, and only nine of those 21 are currently listed as starters. The strength of Ole Miss’ success has largely been built upon scouting and development, and the ability to turn unheralded recruits such as former three-stars Evan Engram and Marquis Haynes into an All-American tight end and an All-SEC defensive end, respectively.
“Gym rat, heart and character,” Freeze said, when asked what traits he looks for in evaluating talent. “Those are the three things that you have to have at a place like Ole Miss. We have to go out and find the Mike Hiltons and Evan Engrams. Jordan Sims. Zedrick Woods, who really didn’t have any offers either. You’ve got to go and find those kids that you believe fit your core values and have tremendous heart and love the game and want to compete at a high level. That’s what I saw in all of those.”
Woods was a three-star prospect whose high-major offers included Tulane, East Carolina and Central Florida, among others. Sims committed mere days before National Signing Day in 2014, choosing the Rebels only because he never received the home-state offer from Alabama or Auburn he coveted.
Woods and Sims are but a few of the under-the-radar, albeit vitally important, hits for Freeze and staff on the trail. Quarterback Chad Kelly was considered a risky sign when he picked Ole Miss over Indiana in the fall of 2014. He spent one semester at East Mississippi Community College after a tumultuous and brief career at Clemson, which ended when he was kicked off the team due to a very public violation of team rules.
Kelly said LSU, Alabama, Texas A&M and Florida were a few of the other schools that showed some degree of interest, but Ole Miss took the chance. He’s glad the Rebels did.
“I really wanted to go to Ole Miss regardless,” Kelly said. “Coach Freeze was the first one to really hit me up and call me and say I might have an opportunity. That stuck with me throughout the whole process, and I wanted to play in the SEC. Growing up in Buffalo, you hear the SEC is the best conference in all of America. I wanted to be able to prove I can do it in the best conference.
“They know talent when they see talent. Those guys do a great job of identifying who’s a good player and who’s not, and they know how to develop those players. But you have to buy into what they’re doing here, too, and this offense. That’s a big part of it.”
Ole Miss’ staff showcased that elite evaluation ability right off the bat, signing an 18-player class in 2012 that featured just one blue-chip recruit (former five-star defensive end Channing Ward) but produced 13 eventual starters and 16 meaningful contributors. For a signing class featuring just one player rated higher than a three-star prospect to have that kind of success is unheard of, and was a marked change from Freeze’s predecessor Houston Nutt. During Nutt’s tenure in Oxford, his classes averaged a whopping 13.5 players a year who either transferred, were suspended or failed to finish their career in Oxford.
“You can talk about coach (Matt) Luke, coach (Chris) Kiffin, coach (Grant) Heard — whoever you want to talk about — and they get rave reviews from high school coaches and parents and prospects,” Simmons said. “They do a great job of developing that bond, those relationships and that trust factor. They get kids on campus and coach Freeze goes to work with what he does. Obviously, them winning at a high level translates to them getting better players. Hugh Freeze has done a great job of selling that program and going out and competing for the best players in the country.”
BY THE NUMBERS
A national opinion has been popularized that Ole Miss signed a class in 2013 that was above its means following a 7-6 season and appearance in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
The class has been a major point of discussion in college football for three years, and the debate has only gotten louder as an ongoing, three-year NCAA investigation into the program has hung overhead. The NCAA levied 28 violations against Ole Miss in a notice of allegations received in January. Nine of the 13 allegations levied against the football program occurred under Freeze. Four were Level I violations, two were Level II and three were considered Level III.
Most of the significant allegations against the 2013 class were related to former five-star recruit Laremy Tunsil. However, most all of the Tunsil-related allegations — lodging, benefits provided to his step father, Lindsey Miller, and a loaner car — occurred when he was already on campus. Two-thirds of the football allegations listed in the NOA are food related, and none allege any pay-for-play.
In reality, though, the 2013 class wasn’t much different from previous years despite the fanfare surrounding it. Ole Miss signed five four-star-or-better players in 2011, six in 2010, five in 2009 and three in 2008. Ed Orgeron was the first to bring star-studded classes to Ole Miss, reeling in a 2007 class with seven four-star-or-better players, 10 in 2006 and two in 2005, his first class.
The difference, however, has been in the retention rate of these classes. Orgeron, like Nutt, was no stranger to double-digit player losses, save for 2006 when only seven signees left the program.
Freeze, on the other hand, has hit double digits in transfers/suspensions/dismissals with just one class: 2013. He’s signed 12, 11 and 17 four-star-or-better prospects, respectively, with his last three classes, which has followed in lockstep with the incremental improvement in the win/loss column each season.
Another outside critique of Ole Miss’ recruiting success is that the Rebels are pulling elite players from all over the place, instead of regionally recruiting good but not great talent like they had previously under previous regimes.
Ole Miss’ current depth chart, however, puts that to rest. Nine of the Rebels’ 22 starters are products of Mississippi programs (high school or junior college), with the remainder standing as examples of a staff keenly aware of the importance of evaluation.
Ole Miss started a walk-on and a lightly-recruited junior college transfer at linebacker against Memphis recently. Its secondary included a former walk-on, two three-stars and Myles Hartsfield, a Penn State castoff who was lightly-recruited because of off-the-field issues. Its defensive line contained three Mississippi products and one-time modestly-recruited prospects in Marquis Haynes and John Youngblood.
The offense is more of the same. Ole Miss exhausts most of its recruiting resources in Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas, while occasionally dipping its toe in Louisiana and Florida. Running back Akeem Judd? Lightly-recruited out of junior college. Damore’ea Stringfellow? Dismissed from Washington. Every other player fits into the Rebels’ territories, despite the talk otherwise.
“People that come to Ole Miss want to come back,” Freeze said. “It’s a great environment; it’s a family environment here. Our energy is welcoming and hospitable. It’s beautiful. Our facilities have constantly improved. So kids want to come back, so once we started winning and grow our name and brand nationally, it’s certainly helped us. We don’t have to worry about natural ins as much as our name, and the name Ole Miss now allows us to get in a lot of homes, and we have to build better relationships with them.”
AT THE LAST MINUTE
Youngblood, a fifth-year senior starting at defensive end, is a shining example of Ole Miss’ evaluation and development skills. Freeze recruited Youngblood at Arkansas State during the 2011 season, but the Alabama native was committed to Central Florida when Freeze took over the reigns in Oxford.
Due to the transition, he didn’t receive an offer from the Rebels until the 11th hour in the recruiting process. Youngblood jumped at the opportunity despite having never taken an official visit to the school, though he was certainly familiar with the Rebels, having visited unofficially his sophomore and junior seasons of high school and through the word of mouth of his best friend, a lifelong Ole Miss fan.
“(Freeze) was coming here. It was just a cold, random phone call. They called and said, ‘Hey, you want to come here?’ They needed to know pretty quickly. I didn’t know what to think,” said Youngblood. “I kind of shrugged my shoulders a little bit and scratched my head. I wasn’t sure I needed to do this because I didn’t go about it the normal way, but I talked to a lot of people. I really enjoyed the campus, and I knew what Oxford was like. I gladly accepted the offer.”
Now in the final year of his Ole Miss career, the former two-star prospect has appeared in 43 games, registering 47 total tackles. He’s started every game this season due to an injury to Fadol Brown, a transfer from Florida International University, a Conference USA school.
“I’ve heard coach Freeze and a couple of position coaches talk about how, while they obviously look at the talent and whatnot, they also identify the character and the work ethic kids have,” said Youngblood.
“Talent can only take you so far, but the work ethic behind it and the heart and the drive that a kid has, that really speaks volumes about how much he’s going to give into the team aspect, what the coaches are saying and how to take coaching. That’s one of the top things that they, as a staff, look at to recruit a player.”
‘BRO, WE CAN DO IT’
Tony Conner didn’t know what to think at first.
The doors to the elevator opened and another Under Armour All-American stepped in. He was sure of it because the face was familiar enough, and from at least Conner’s untrained eye, he looked like a fellow high school prospect. And seeing as how Conner was in Orlando, Fla., for the annual all-star event, he could easily put two and two together.
But Conner has always been a quiet type. He all but kept his head down and didn’t think much of what was sure to be nothing more than another forgettable — if, for a few seconds, awkward — multi-floor ride. He could be forgiven for being somewhat apprehensive when the player addressed him directly.
“Bro, aren’t you Tony?” Laquon Treadwell asked, and Conner nodded in the affirmative.
Conner had never met Treadwell before. Sure, they were, at the time, being recruited by a few of the same schools, but this was the first time their paths had crossed. Treadwell, though, had long kept tabs on him, because while he publicly wouldn’t commit to Ole Miss for another month or so, privately he had given Freeze and staff the good news.
“Bro, you going to Ole Miss?,” Treadwell queried. Conner didn’t have an answer.
This was Treadwell in his new role as recruiter — a role he embraced as the five-star, class-headliner prospect of 2013. In recruiting, the words of coaches only go so far, especially when pursuing the best of the best. The thoughts and actions of their peers, however? In some cases, they can be a game-changer.
And Conner could have gone anywhere.
A consensus five-star prospect, Conner was rated the top prospect in Mississippi by Scout.com and ESPN.com. He was listed the No. 2 on the Clarion-Ledger’s 10 Most Wanted, the same publication that named him to its Dandy Dozen.
“I just had a long talk with my mom, my dad and family members, debating on which school I was going to go to,” Conner said. “It was hard because of Nick Saban and all the championships and everything he’s won down there at Alabama. I just came to a point when I saw my cousin Issac (Gross) and (fellow South Panola standout) Temario (Strong) come to Ole Miss … Issac always told me he wanted to try and do something different. He wanted to put Mississippi on the map. Throughout my recruitment, I was thinking about the same thing.”
Conner always knew he would ultimately choose between his initial offers. Ole Miss stepped up first, followed by Alabama. He loved both schools. But South Panola — located in Batesville, some 25 miles down Highway 6 from Oxford — has long become known as a pipeline, of sorts, for future Rebels. From Peria and John Jerry to Jamarca Sanford, Eddie and Chris Strong, Gross and Temario Strong, Ole Miss is deep-rooted in South Panola, meaning the Rebels will always be players, to the end, in the recruitment of Tigers.
“If I had gone to Alabama, my mom probably could have made a couple of games,” Conner said. “But it’s a pretty tough drive. Ole Miss is right down the road, close to home. I knew she could come to every game, and my pops could come to every game. Family members are close and everything. That’s one of the reasons why I did it, and another is it’s a great coaching staff over here. Coach Freeze, (Ole Miss defensive) coach (Dave) Wommack, they stand behind you. It’s great.”
Robert Nkemdiche, the No. 1 prospect in the country at the time, only considered Ole Miss because his brother, Denzel, was a star linebacker at the school, and their mother, Beverly, was intent on her sons playing together. Because of her responsibilities as a Nigerian diplomat, Beverly was only able to visit the United States to watch her sons play a handful of times a year — if that.
Treadwell’s childhood friend, cornerback Anthony Standifer, was a cornerback at Ole Miss, and was instrumental in talking Treadwell into visiting campus and sparking his interest in the Rebels.
With those ties in place, Treadwell, Nkemdiche and Conner worked on Tunsil, a Florida native who wanted to leave home for school.
“I’m telling you,” Treadwell said, “we can go. We can do it.”
THE WORST HOURS
Haynes was living a dream.
Then the dream turned into a nightmare.
Haynes, a former three-star recruit, originally signed with North Carolina out of high school, but due to academic reasons, was sent to prep school at Fork Union (Va.) Military Academy for a season.
He always wanted to be a Tar Heel, but after the year in prep school, he was back in the recruiting process and facing the harsh reality that the North Carolina administration wasn’t going to let him in.
“It was a devastating 48 hours,” Haynes said.
That devastation opened the door for other schools and another wave of the recruitment process, even if Haynes himself wanted no part of it. Ole Miss entered the picture only when then-UNC defensive coordinator Dan Disch — in an effort to find a good landing spot for Haynes — made a call to Barney Farrar, assistant A.D./high school and junior college relations at Ole Miss. Farrar and Haynes had a good talk, and the next thing he knew, Farrar was calling as often as he was allowed.
Haynes took his visit and “fell in love” once he stepped foot on campus.
“I started thinking too much about how I’m not going to college and stuff like that,” Haynes said. “Then the SEC and Ole Miss became an option. All my friends and players and stuff kept telling me I’m too undersized to play in the SEC. I had to prove them wrong. Coach Barney and them gave me that shot. They just talked about how Ole Miss is and how much he wanted me here. I talked to coach Freeze, and he talked about how much he’d show me the same level of care that North Carolina did. It sold me in. Coach Freeze and them kept their word.
“I go into their offices every day and tell them I love them. I’m blessed to be here.”
Haynes is one of Freeze’s greatest success stories — an unheralded prospect added in recruiting through established relationships, diligence and, well, misfortune.
But recruiting isn’t an exact science, as Haynes can attest. He was a two-star prospect in 2012 and a three-star in 2013. Ole Miss, North Carolina and South Carolina were his offers. Three years later, he’s tied for fourth in Ole Miss history in career sacks, and he’s widely projected as an early-round selection in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Haynes has appeared in 31 games in his career with 95 total tackles to his credit, including 20.5 sacks. He far and away leads Ole Miss with three sacks and five tackles for loss this season.
“Coach Disch told me to just trust them,” Haynes said. “He told me they’re not going to tell you nothing wrong, they’re not going to throw you away or nothing like that. So I put my trust in them and gave them the full best of my ability. They trust me. We love each other. Those are the two coaches I talk to the most on the team. Coach Kiffin, I talk to him, too. We have our one-on-one time. I love all my coaches. I’m just grateful that they let me come here and be a part of Ole Miss.”
IN THE MARGINS
Engram, another member of the divisive 2013 class, didn’t receive his first scholarship offer until right before his senior season. Sure, he went about the process as most every other offer-hungry prospect does, including countless summer camps and unofficial visits, but interest was minimal.
He was a ‘tweener,’ a skill player too big for wide receiver, but not quite big enough for tight end. Spread offenses with hybrid tight ends weren’t widely adopted yet, and it didn’t help matters Engram’s high school had “a great running back,” as Engram tells it these days. He wasn’t involved in the offense much, and there wasn’t a lot of film out on him.
His break came when he participated in a summer camp at Ole Miss. Freeze was impressed with his ability to change directions and the burst he displayed, as well as the soft hands that have taken Engram from relative recruiting obscurity as a three-star prospect with additional offers from Wake Forrest and South Alabama, to prominence.
“Those were my opportunities to show my worth,” Engram said of camps. “I went to all the invite camps, so (schools) bring in other guys that they’d either offered or guys they were trying to evaluate or top guys in the country. That was my opportunity. Whenever I was one-on-one with those (high-ranked) guys, I wanted to make a statement. And when I got time with the coaches, I wanted to pay attention and show I could be coached. It was definitely an opportunity for me to show my worth and for the coaches to get a feel for what kind of player I could be.”
His recruiting eventually picked up some, but not much. Ohio, Navy and some mid-majors offered, but he was locked into Ole Miss, and he’s rewarded the Rebels by becoming their all-time leader in receptions and receiving yards by a tight end.
Five game into his senior season, Engram is tops on the team with 479 receiving yards, and his four touchdowns double that of the next-closest Rebel.
“I think it’s great for Ole Miss identifying a guy like Engram for a guy that perfectly fits their offensive scheme,” Simmons said. “Engram wasn't going to go to Alabama or LSU and just be a big wide receiver. He wasn’t going to fit. He runs in the 4.7s. He wasn’t getting the separation on the outside. He has to be a mismatch. He has to fit that hybrid, that kind of extended tight end or flex-out guy. The spread’s so common over the last five to eight years. It’s taken off in college football. He’s a perfect fit.
“You’re seeing more and more guys get recruited like that, where if Evan was coming out of high school now, there’s guys that I actually see in high school that I compare to Evan Engram. Five or six years ago, I wasn’t thinking that way when I evaluated players as a recruiting analyst. Now, you have so many schemes they can fit into, and Ole Miss did a great job of evaluating him and envisioning how he would fit into their scheme and how he’d be utilized.”
Any coach worth his salt can identify a four or five-star player. Freeze had much of his recruiting success in the margins, with an Evan Engram, shortening the road — if but a few miles — from the 2-11 season in the year prior to his arrival to the first Sugar Bowl appearance for Ole Miss in decades.
“A kid has to be quick-twitched, but the No. 1 thing is the competitive spirit,” Freeze said. “But they have to be able to move. They may not run the fastest 40 or the fastest shuttle or any of that, but it can’t be awful. They’ve got to be able to move and change directions, and then if they have the competitive spirit to go with that and love the game and have the character you want, those are the ones you take chances on.”
NOT SO FAST
Ole Miss’ five-year stretch under Freeze is a blueprint in roster building, in committing to a specific recruiting approach and never deviating.
But hard as Freeze and staff might work at it, they’ve had no shortage of painful misses.
“If you go into the last couple of days believing you’re in the lead and don’t get them, which we’ve had, it’s gut-wrenching,” Freeze said. “Some you kind of have the feeling beforehand that you’re probably not in the lead that last week or so. It’s not as big of a shock or hurt. It still hurts because you’ve invested so much time in building those relationships. But definitely the ones going into the last day or two thinking you’re in a good spot and for something to occur and he goes somewhere else, it’s gut-wrenching.”
The list is extensive, and not all-inclusive:
Drew Richmond, Jonathan Kongbo, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Darrin Kirkland and Kyle Phillips (Tennessee); Nyles Morgan (Notre Dame); Bo Scarborough, Shy Carter, Terrell Hall and Jarron Reed (Alabama); Jamal Adams, Clifton Garrett, Duke Riley, Davon Godchaux and Malachi Dupree (LSU); Carl Lawson and Peyton Barber (Auburn); Leo Lewis, Jeffery Simmons and Chris Jones (Mississippi State); CeCe Jefferson (Florida); Rashan Gary (Michigan).
Which begs the question: If Ole Miss is only accumulating talent by nefarious means, how can it lose out so often? And what does it say about the schools that did land those prospects?
“No one offered us money, not at Ole Miss anyways,” Jennifer Coney, mother of Gary, said in an interview with Chat Sports. “We were offered money, but not from Ole Miss. I'm close with Terry Little (mother of five-star 2016 Ole Miss signee Greg Little) and no one offered Greg money, no one did. No one offered money for Rashan to commit, not from Ole Miss.
“Over the course of a year and a half as they were recruiting Rashan, we had a great relationship. They recruited not only Rashan, but also myself and my family. I don't have a negative thing to say about them.”
Despite the numerous misses listed, Ole Miss has incrementally built a roster capable of competing, similar — if at a more methodical pace — as other programs in recent years that have come into success.
Clemson was 6-7 in 2010. In 2011, the Tigers improved to 10-4, followed by back-to-back 11-2 seasons, 10-3 and 14-1. Oklahoma State carved a similar path as Ole Miss, first with a 4-7 record in the debut season of Mike Gundy, followed by back-to-back 7-6 campaigns, a pair of 9-4s and 11-2.
Yet few have batted an eye at the success of such programs.
And as far as cumulative SEC recruiting rankings the last five years, Ole Miss has finished no better than middle of the road. Excluding the 2012 class, when the Rebels managed a class ranked in the 50s, the last four years have resulted in a overall cumulative class ranking of 12.25. In the same period, Alabama has finished, on average, No. 2 overall; LSU 7.0; Auburn 8.2; Tennessee 9.0; Georgia 9.6; Florida 12.2; and Texas A&M 12.8.
Ole Miss’ classes, on average, have been good enough for sixth or seventh-best in the conference in a given year. With the 2012 class? Almost out of the Top 10.
But the rise of Ole Miss is viewed through a different lens. The enduring question is why, especially when one look at Ole Miss’ roster provides a compelling case that it shouldn’t be.