Let's face facts, which is sometimes difficult to do.
There hasn't been much good to crow, or write, about in Ole Miss sports in months, particularly if football is your thing. We will not rehash the “downers” here; they’ve all been burned into our brains repeatedly. But anyone paying attention knew that the recruiting cycle for 2016-17 that ended yesterday with National Signing Day wasn't going to garner national acclaim like last year's Top 5 recruiting efforts.
In fact, most thought, myself included, that any class rated in the low 50s or high 40s would be likely and, under the circumstances, even acceptable if some critical needs were somehow miraculously filled along the way.
This class just came with too much baggage, common sense dictated, for these coaches to manipulate anything higher than that. Think about it — a transitional staff with five new coaches coming off a losing season under the cloud of an NCAA investigation is not a recipe for Top 10, or even 20 or maybe 30, recruiting classes.
“It was ugly and I didn’t enjoy it,” Ole Miss Head Coach Hugh Freeze said of the nasty recruiting he and staff had to deal with on the trail. “You take great pride in who you are and how you do things. That’s not to say that we’ve been perfect. But I know the value I place on this job and my name and our coaches’ names and our administration’s name, that I’m the leader of the program, so everything gets directed pretty much at me.
“Some of it is personal with some people, probably. I don’t talk about other schools in recruiting. I will not do that and our staff has been charged to do the same. There are several others that they thought it was a prime opportunity to use it in recruiting and that’s the route they go. I won’t forget who they are.”
But when all the dust had settled, what Freeze and company had accomplished reminded me of the ending of the 1996 action film “Independence Day.” Bill Pullman, who played the U.S. President whose country and planet was under attack by aliens, approached Jeff Goldblum, who was his foil in some ways but devised the plan to bring down the alien force. When, as now deceased Robert Loggia, who played a general in the movie, said “show the rest of the world how to bring those sons of bitches down,” the scene moved to the desert where Goldblum, and his pilot (played by Will Smith) had crashed landed after their successful journey into the bowels of the alien mother ship.
The President looked at Goldblum, cocked his head to one side and said wryly and with a tinge of sarcasm, “not bad, not bad at all.”
When all the faxes from signees had been received, approved and distributed to the masses, and the results of the 2017 class were revealed and tallied, that's exactly how many felt toward what Freeze and his staff had accomplished. Not bad, not bad at all.
“My whole thing was, you know us for who we are,” Freeze allowed regarding his conversations with recruits and their families. “Look at the 20-year picture; what is the best place for your son? If the (potential NCAA) penalty doesn’t affect your son’s development as a person and doesn’t affect his scholarship, is this the right place for him? That’s the question they all had to answer. We had to work very hard at that. Unfortunately, whether the information is right or wrong, I don’t really know. But there are a lot of (opposing schools) who chose to talk about us a lot throughout the process.”
Some needs were filled - most specifically at linebacker where five worthy candidates were signed - and some T’s were crossed and I’s dotted with a couple of notable offensive linemen, a couple of pretty good wideouts to add to an already-blessed stable and some quality defensive backs - including highly-rated D.D. Bowie - were brought on board. It was also a necessity to secure a JUCO QB and a freshman quarterback, which was accomplished with a pair of youngsters with exciting credentials.
But while JUCO DE Markel Winters is a nice addition, and a couple of young DTs were signed, the “shortage” in this class is the lack of a couple of more defensive linemen, a consensus shared by the coaches and fans alike.
We'll let our recruiting expert, Yancy Porter, in our estimation the best in the business for fan sites, dissect this class further, but suffice it to say this class landing at No. 29 by Scout.com is in no way, shape or form a disappointment based on the circumstances and is even reason for a sheepish smile and light celebration.
Having stated that, and with all due respect to the players and coaches involved, future classes will have to lean more toward the Top 5 effort of 2016 versus the 29th rating of 2017 if championships are the goal, which they most definitely are, but this program can withstand, and even thrive, with one year like this one.
“We’ve suffered penalties, and this recruiting class, it was a penalty to be under the cloud we’re under,” Freeze said. “During that time, it’s like a family going through difficulty, which I’m sure all of you have. If you haven’t, keep living, you will. You really find out who is with you and you join arms and say, ‘You know what, we’re going to face it and get through it.’”
On offense, where they signed seven players, there aren't a lot of immediate needs. On defense, where they signed 14 players, immediate needs were, fingers crossed, filled at linebacker, for sure; on the back end, definitely; and up front, some.
Moving forward, here's what Rebel fans have to look forward to from a recruiting standpoint.
To rehash what has been stated several times before, when Freeze brought in five new coaches, his emphasis was on hiring standout recruiters. New DC Wesley McGriff, new WR Coach Jacob Peeler and new LB Coach Bradley Dale Peveto all have on their resumes' “top 20 recruiter in the country.” DL Coach Tray Scott, you will just have to trust because we have seen him in action, is also relentless in his pursuit of talent and OC Phil Longo, while dipping into this level for the first time in his career, has that same kind of drive toward signing winning talent. To go along with Freeze, Matt Luke, Jason Jones, Maurice Harris and Derrick Nix, one could rightly state there isn't a “weak link” in the bunch when it comes to recruiting and be pretty safe with superlative statements concerning this staff's recruiting potential and already-established prowess, individually and collectively.
Once the NCAA cloud is lifted, which I have been assured by several is nearing an end (months, not weeks), it is expected that a high-level, competitive-with-anyone, of recruiting will take place by this staff.
In the meantime, yesterday was the first breath of fresh air for the football program, it seems, in a long time. And it felt good.
Not bad, not bad at all.