Yesterday, Ole Miss signed a pretty good class ranking between 15 and 19 nationally depending on your 'crootin website of choice. There were some strong victories and misses this recruiting cycle, but in determining whether the class was a real success, I think it's important to look at how the group will fit with what's on campus.
Obviously, things will change before August. Some players will change positions. Others will likely leave the program. Some recruits will be better than expected, and others will be worse. This is simply a glimpse of what to expect based on evaluations made by those who are paid to do so. I will not attempt to discuss every signee here. I will simply talk about particular needs the Rebels had and how they filled them or missed in filling them.
Ole Miss' biggest needs this offseason was no doubt along the offensive line. The Rebels lost six scholarship linemen to graduation, with three of those being starters and one more being a major, major contributor (Emmanuel McCray). What was already a weakness for the Rebels could have become a dire situation without an influx of talent at the situation. Luckily, the Rebels got that.
In December, the Rebels signed a likely starter at their right tackle spot in Fahn Cooper, the junior college tackle. Cooper spent his first year of college as a starting left tackle for Bowling Green. After starting twelve games for the 8-4 team, he decided to transfer to a junior college in order to increase his chances at ending up with a higher profile team. It worked, as he was pursued by a number of BCS schools before ultimately choosing the Rebels. Cooper is likely to heavily compete to start as soon as he arrives on campus in May.
Ole Miss also needed to find a guard who could compete for a starting job or at least contribute. They signed one of the top three guards in the country, Rod Taylor, in an effort to get that done. Taylor is big and strong and may find the field very early. He will likely compete with both Aaron Morris and Justin Bell for a starting job, though I don't ultimately expect him to win one (unless Bell ends up sliding over to center). There are other guards vying for those jobs as well, particularly Daronte Bouldin, who the coaches are excited about, and Austin Golson, who I'd like to see move out to tackle.
The Rebels signed a couple of other offensive line prospects as well, but those two were the most important signees.
The defensive line last season simply couldn't get much pressure, with or without CJ Johnson. After eventually moving Robert Nkemdiche to defensive tackle, things started to take shape, but there still was an absence of size and pass rushers. The Rebels had a lot of work to do to overhaul a unit that had plenty of players but lacked many standout playmakers.
The Rebels added two highly pursued tweener players who appear destined for defensive tackle. Breeland Speaks and Garrald McDowell are both four star players who had offers from many of SEC schools. Either can play defensive end, but both look like they'll be solid defensive tackle options once they gain a little bit of weight. The Rebels were obviously hoping to improve athleticism inside, and they likely did with these two.
The defensive tackle need they didn't fill was that of a big guy who eats up blockers. The Rebels simply don't have someone on roster who fits the more traditional defensive tackle role. They were in on Michael Sawyers late but ultimately lost the four-star tackle to Tennessee on signing day. It wasn't essential that the Rebels find someone who fits this mold, but it would have helped a great deal moving forward.
As for pass rushing defensive ends, Ole Miss found two who should excite Rebel fans. Victor Evans and Marquis Haynes turned down Texas and Clemson respectively to come to Oxford. Haynes is already enrolled and was called "phenomenal" by Hugh Freeze yesterday. Evans is still finishing high school classes in Texas but should also bring some speed and athleticism that was lacking outside. Both players probably need to gain weight before being anything more than role players, but that's not a very hard thing to do for many people transitioning from high school to college.
It became obvious last year that the Rebels couldn't reliably pick up tough yards on the ground when they really needed them. They had good backs in Jaylen Walton and IItavius Mathers, but neither player was a bruiser who excelled in short yardage. Some of that was, of course, the fault of the interior offensive line. The biggest back on roster, Jordan Wilkins, was redshirted and looks to play a contributory role next season. The coaching staff obviously thought finding a big back with experience was necessary.
They got an early commitment from Akeem Judd, the number one running back in junior college. Judd didn't have a good sophomore year, hampered with injury and watching former Auburn signee Javon Robinson dominate. Ole Miss fans started doubting his ability, but the coaching staff held firm. They signed him, and juco players aren't regularly signed to sit on the bench. I can't say either way whether Judd is good. His film looks pretty good, but there's just no way to know.
The Rebels also pursued Alabama commit Bo Scarbrough all year, but that ultimately wasn't fruitful. Scarbrough was a top 50 player in the class and would have potentially changed the dynamic of the offense, but the Rebels couldn't get the Tuscaloose native away from Alabama. It just wasn't happening.
With Donte Moncrief, Ja-Mes Logan, and Jordan Holder all leaving the team for various reasons, Hugh Freeze had to find some replacements at the receiver position. The results were mixed.
The Rebels did manage to sign Markell Pack, the best receiver in the state of Mississippi. Pack had been committed to Florida State but changed that commitment in October. He is another big receiver, something Freeze pursues, and could step into a helpful role early. The Rebels aren't in a terrible sitaution at the position, so they likely don't need an immediate starter. Pack will grow into the position and should flourish later in his career.
Dayall Harris is also a big receiver, but he was more lightly recruited than Pack. Harris simply didn't have the same type of high school career, playing for a team that was mostly based on the running game. It will likely take him some time to adjust to the college game.
The Rebels missed on the other big-time receiver prospect they pursued in Isaiah McKenzie. McKenzie was a consensus four-star player. The smaller receiver likely would have immediately contributed in the return game and played a role at receiver the Rebels don't currently have: the shifty player who gets yardage underneath. The Rebels had McKenzie until he got an offer from UGA two days before signing day, having never been to Athens, and signed with them.
The linebacker need for the Rebels wasn't quite as pressing as the other four major needs, in that the position is pretty settled for next year. However, it would have been nice to sign several linebackers since Ole Miss will be losing a lot of players at the position soon.
The sole linebacker signee in the class is Demarquis Gates, a Georgia product who is rated either a three or four star, again depending on your website of choice. Gates is a good signee who will likely succeed at Ole Miss. The problem is that he's the only one.
The Rebels missed on both Nyles Morgan and Clifton Garrett, four and five-star linebackers who each named the Rebels their leaders at one point. Long-time commitment Alfred Dickens also didn't ultimately sign with the Rebels since the coaching staff wasn't sure the Olive Branch prospect would ever be able to play football again after a very severe neck injury. The position grouping essentially fell apart this year. This isn't a disaster, since the Rebels can remedy it with a strong class next year. It just makes that imperative.
The coaching staff filled most of their needs with this class and certainly accomplished their most pressing goals. The class is a strong one, albeit not what many fans had hoped. If the Rebels are able to retain their more talented signees though, unlike Houston Nutt's staffs did, classes like this could help them get to teams that are consistently big, strong, and fast. You can win with players like that.