In early November of 2012, a historic draft class seemed to be slipping through Hugh Freeze’s hands. The first-year Ole Miss head coach was coming off a 37-10 thumping from Georgia that dropped his team to 5-4. With tough conference tests against Vandy (this was when the ‘Dores were a nine-win team under James Franklin), LSU and Mississippi State still on the schedule, the Rebels’ chances at bowl eligibility were flickering.
Freeze needed the momentum. His living room sermonizing about leading the Ole Miss program out of the wilderness had attracted the attention of some of the top recruits in the country, but he needed a successful season to provide proof of concept. Elite prospects like Robert Nkemdiche, Laremy Tunsil, Laquon Treadwell and Tony Conner needed to see that the progress promised by Freeze was real.
The Rebels narrowly lost one-score games to both Vandy and LSU, but showed the uncompetitive days of Houston Nutt were in the past. Then came a momentum-shifting beatdown of a ranked Mississippi State team followed by a resounding win over Pitt in the BBVA Compass Bowl. That momentum carried into National Signing Day, when Freeze landed the first top-10 signing class in school history.
This year’s Ole Miss recruiting class is currently ranked 17th in the country, per 247Sports. Matt Luke won’t bring in a 2012-level haul, but he has the opportunity to sign a solid class and put the program’s footing back on solid ground. He already has commitments from four-stars Jerrion Ealy, Dannis Jackson, Jonathan Mingo, Darius Thomas, and Sam Williams. But ugly losses to Alabama and LSU have brought on-field momentum to a screeching halt. If Luke hopes to hold together a top-25 class, he’ll need a strong finish similar to Freeze’s in 2012.
Like in 2012, Ole Miss has family connections to an elite defensive prospect.
What put Freeze in the game for the country’s No. 1 overall recruit in 2012 was the fact that Nkemdiche’s brother, Denzel, was starring as a freshman linebacker for the Rebels.
Luke is in the game for five-star linebacker Nakobe Dean for the same reason. The brother of Mississippi’s top-ranked prospect is a freshman tight end for Ole Miss.
“I’m always down there because my brother,” Dean told the Ole Miss Spirit after an unofficial visit in February. “I have gotten to know a lot of the people down there at Ole Miss through the last few years. It’s just my kind of people down there.”
Also working in the Rebels’ favor is the fact that the top prospect in Mississippi has only left the state three times since 2000.
But family and proximity alone won’t get Dean on campus. The Georgia Bulldogs are the current favorite to land him and that’s how this story will likely end if the Rebels defense continues to perform the way it is. A strong finish in 2012 convinced Nkemdiche that a turnaround was underway in Oxford. Dean will likely need to see the same.
A big-time signing like Dean could cause a ripple effect.
If a strong finish convinced Dean to sign with Ole Miss, you could see a domino effect similar to the one touched off by Treadwell six years ago.
Treadwell, ranked the top wide receiver prospect in the country, committed to the Rebels in January of 2013. A month later, Nkemdiche, Tunsil and Conner all picked up Ole Miss hats on signing day.
If Nakobe were to commit and sign with Ole Miss in December of 2018, there are some other in-state guys who could be close behind. Four-star defensive back Brandon Turnage committed to Bama last December but has been to Oxford over 10 times since then, working out in the Manning Center with current Ole Miss commit and high school teammate Eric Jeffries. Other non-Ole Miss commits like Jaren Handy (Auburn), Byron Young (Alabama), Bill Norton (Georgia), Jamond Gordon (Auburn), Zion Logue (Georgia), and Eric Gray (Michigan) could also defect from their respective schools after seeing Dean pick the Rebels.
There has to be some sort of momentum by season’s end.
Ole Miss should be 4-2 after this week’s game against Louisiana-Monroe, but the stretch run through conference play is daunting: home games against Auburn, South Carolina and State coupled with road games against Arkansas, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt.
The Rebels will be searching for at least two more wins—maybe three if something crazy happens—to show recruits that Luke has things heading in the right direction.
We’ve said consistently on this site that six wins was the goal for holding together the 2019 class. If Luke can right the ship, win a couple more games and show a competent product against the other tough opponents, this class could close strong.
Winning the Egg Bowl wouldn’t be such a bad idea either.