If recruiting hits made Ole Miss relevant, recruiting misses could kill Rebels
Ole Miss is the latest school in the crosshairs of the NCAA. The recent rise of the Rebels is in danger, as is the fate of coach Hugh Freeze.
The list of allegations against the program is long and distinguished, highlighted by most of the stereotypes associated with big-time college football. Recruiting infractions. Money being thrown around. Lying to investigators. And so on.
It hardly comes as a shock. There has been smoke barreling out of the Magnolia State for quite some time now. Even though Freeze didn’t have a résumé on par with most of his compatriots in the SEC — he was a high school coach for the first 13 years of his career — he seemingly did the impossible and made Mississippi nationally relevant.
All of a sudden, the Rebs were beating Alabama, hosting ESPN College GameDay and partying with Katy Perry in The Grove.
The lifeblood of any college football program is recruiting. According to the composite rankings at 247Sports, former coach Houston Nutt’s four classes from 2008-11 placed 29th, 19th, 20th and 23rd. That was akin to what Ole Miss had done before.
Even Ed Orgeron — everyone agrees that he’s an ace on the recruiting trail — didn’t fare much better on National Signing Day when he was the head coach in Oxford. From 2005-07, he reeled in the No. 30, No. 16 and No. 19 classes. Unlike Nutt, who started strong but finished weak, Orgeron never won more than four games.
Yet somehow, Freeze managed to ink the No. 8 class in America for 2013. Three years later, his haul cracked the Top 5.
That 2013 class featured four 5-star signees, including future first-round picks Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil. Nkemdiche (below) was from Georgia. Treadwell was from Illinois. Tunsil was from Florida.
Nkemdiche — the No. 1 player in the nation at the time — took official visits to Florida and LSU, traditional powers in the conference. Treadwell visited Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, offensive juggernauts from the defense-optional Big 12. Tunsil visited Alabama and Georgia. The Rebels didn’t enter the mix until way late in the process.
They all chose Mississippi. Perhaps not by coincidence, both Nkemdiche and Tunsil have reportedly been on the receiving end of improper benefits.
Nkemdiche’s career was highlighted by brilliant play and bizarre behavior alike, including a crazy incident in Atlanta.
That’s nothing compared to Tunsil’s story arc, though. He was accused — by his own stepfather, no less — of accepting money from agents. He was suspended for seven games by the NCAA. He had social media accounts on Twitter and Instagram compromised, which resulted in a request he made of a Rebs staffer for a cash handout being made public.
Then there was the infamous bong made out of a gas mask. The incriminating video no doubt resulted in his slide down draft boards. Later, Tunsil admitted to taking money from coaches in college.
Not only did Tunsil lose millions in the draft, but so did Nkemdiche. Based on the current state of the NFL’s personal conduct policy, clubs take character into consideration more than ever. Tunsil and Nkemdiche had obvious character concerns.
It’s fair to wonder how Tunsil and Nkemdiche ended up where they did — maybe Ole Miss bent the rules more than most. Tunsil apparently wasn’t even considering the Rebels until the last minute. Yes, Nkemdiche had his older brother Denzel on the roster, but Robert was much more gifted than Denzel and could’ve gone anywhere.
True, Mississippi had landed high-profile recruits previously. But four 5-star kids in one cycle? Something smelled fishy.
It’s not like Freeze had a reputation like Nick Saban or Urban Meyer. It’s no surprise that those two completely turned around Alabama and Ohio State, respectively, upon their arrival. They have a track record of doing just that.
Freeze had no such track record. It takes more than a one-year stint at Arkansas State — most guys don’t even know what town that school is in — for blue-chip prospects to all say, “I’ve gotta play for him.” There’d been only 19 selections in Round 1 for the Rebs dating to 1937, yet now we’ve seen three in the same draft.
Don’t give Freeze too much credit for turning Tunsil, Nkemdiche and Treadwell (above) into first-rounders, either. Each was a can’t-miss talent.
It was recruiting success that suddenly morphed a mediocre Ole Miss team from pretender to contender in the almighty SEC. As such, it will be recruiting failure that more than likely returns the Rebels to their middling ways of years past.
Two Januarys ago, Freeze hoisted a trophy as champion of the Sugar Bowl, which hadn’t been done by a Mississippi coach since John Vaught — as in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium — in 1969. While Nkemdiche was suspended for the game, Treadwell caught three touchdown passes. Even Tunsil reeled in a TD on a gadget play.
The Rebs had won 10 games for the first time since 2003, although when they will again is anyone’s guess at this point.
Despite being projected as a threat to Alabama in the West, Freeze and Co. cratered to 5-7 this past season and failed to become bowl eligible. The cloud of suspicion following the program then set up shop on signing day.
Just a year after welcoming the No. 5 class in the country, Freeze’s efforts fell all the way to 30th in 2017. Looking ahead to 2018 — the usual suspects are near the top, naturally — Ole Miss doesn’t have a single commitment on the books. There’s nothing recruits like less than uncertainty. Nothing is certain in Oxford at the moment.
The Rebels will indeed sign a class next February. Still, don’t expect any 5-star studs. And Freeze might not be the one doing the signing.