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TLV #184: Recruit Mississippi First

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Last week, Roderick Taylor, a 300-plus pound guard out of Jackson's Callaway High School committed to play football for Hugh Freeze's Ole Miss Rebels. Taylor is rated by many recruiting services as one of the top offensive guards in all of high school football, and is the consensus top player in the state of Mississippi. His commitment, in a vacuum, is a tremendous development for the future of the Rebel football program. In context, though, it is an extremely welcome commitment that speaks to a recruiting strategy that could pay dividends down the road.

With his commitment, Taylor becomes one of several top Mississippians to pledge their loyalty to Ole Miss. Per the recruiting service, four of the past six high school football seasons have seen the top Mississippi footballer pledge to play for Ole Miss. But, with Rod Taylor, this did not seem likely too long ago.

Before committing to Ole Miss, it was long thought that Taylor was going to play for Nick Saban's dominant Alabama Crimson Tide football program. The Bama coaches had, in fact, been in contact with Taylor since before Hugh Freeze had even become the head coach at Ole Miss, and wanted him to become yet another in a long line of powerful, NFL-bound offensive linemen to play college ball in Tuscaloosa.

A few months ago, however, the suspicions that Rod Taylor would end up wearing Crimson began to fade, and recruiting pundits and fans alike began to treat his commitment to Ole Miss as a foregone conclusion. Ole Miss escaping the borderline unspeakable awfulness that was the end of the Houston Nutt regime certainly had a lot to do with this, as did a double-digit victory in the Egg Bowl which cast nationwide doubt as to the future of Dan Mullen's Mississippi State program. But Hugh Freeze has worked to make recruiting the state of Mississippi a major priority, understanding that, if we are indeed the flagship university of Mississippi (hint: we are), that we should be the program that earns the letters of intent of top Mississippi high school athletes. Once those athletes are secured, the coaches can then secure a complete and strong recruiting class with players from across the country.

This past February, Hugh Freeze and the Rebs made headlines and captured the attention of ESPN for seemingly a full 24-hour cycle by signing a top-5 recruiting class on the tail end of a 7-6 football season. Headlining this class were guys like Robert Nkemdiche, Leremy Tunsil, and Laquon Treadwell - top athletes from Georgia, Florida, and Illinois, respectively. The foundation for this class, however, were guys like South Panola star safety Antonio Conner, Jackson Prep quarterback Ryan Buchanan, West Bolivar High School speedster halfback/receiver Kailo Moore, and a bevy of other Mississippi athletes. While they might not have grabbed the headlines, their roles in this program will also be important in future successes, not only on the field, but off of the field in establishing Ole Miss as the place to play college football if you are from the state of Mississippi.

One could easily look at the history of football stars to come from Mississippi as prima facie evidence of the need to recruit Mississippians, invoking names such as "Manning," "Payton," "Favre," "Rice," and "McNair." Or one could look at guys like Donte Moncrief, CJ Johnson, and Aaron Morris, current Rebel starters who are legitimate SEC caliber athletes and major contributors to this program. If we cannot keep talent like that from playing at LSU, Alabama, or Tennessee, how can we delude ourselves into thinking we can recruit elsewhere? Make no mistake; dominating the state of Mississippi in recruiting is priority number one if you are an Ole Miss coach.

Roderick Taylor, when choosing Ole Miss, spoke of a loyalty to Mississippi and a desire to succeed both in and for his home state as reasons for his decision. This is the attitude that Hugh Freeze needs to evoke when recruiting athletes from the Magnolia State. He needs to establish Ole Miss as the place in Mississippi to successfully represent the state. Of course, on his end, actually winning football games - the Egg Bowl and otherwise - can only lend further credibility to that message. If this staff can continue to impress and improve, then expect the Roderick Taylors of the future to follow in his footsteps and turn down other SEC offers to represent their home state at Ole Miss.