Matt Luke has no damn business having a recruiting class ranked in the top 15, even this far out from National Signing Day.
Ole Miss’ ability to recruit should be crippled in the immediate wake of the NCAA’s heavy-handed reprisal. The two-year bowl ban will be over by the time this year’s signees show up on campus, but the Rebels are still dealing with a deficit of scholarships and a surplus of negative PR after the NCAA handed down its punishment last December.
Yet here we are. After a red-hot month on the ‘crootin trail, Luke’s 2019 class ranks 14th in the country, per 247Sports.
A caveat before we dive into this: that lofty ranking is in part the product of pure volume—with six months left before signing day, Luke has simply collected more commitments than most coaches. Ole Miss has 22 commits so far; no other school ranked in the top 40 has more than 19. Of those 22, only three are four-stars. Compare that to Mississippi State, where seven of new head coach Joe Moorehead’s 16 commits are four-stars.
This class probably won’t be loaded like those of Hugh Freeze’s best years. But whether the class breaks the top-20 on signing day is beside the point. Here’s the real story: Luke is proving that, despite the months of terrible press, despite the crippling sanctions handed down by a sanctimonious NCAA, kids still want to play ball in Oxford.
Hell, Luke wouldn't even be running this team if it wasn't for the NCAA punishment. Let’s be frank: Luke was hired to keep the program treading water until it can make a bigger, better hire. From the moment he took over for Freeze, his dictate was to keep the program from drowning.
When it became clear to Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork that the NCAA sanctions were going to prevent him from hiring a top candidate to replace Freeze, he turned to Luke to keep the roster together. The risk the program faces is that the compounding scandals could lead to a couple of bad recruiting cycles, which could lead to less talent on the field, which could lead to more losses and therefore more bad recruiting cycles. It’s a catastrophic feedback loop that could capsize the program.
There may be questions about Luke’s ability to run a program from the sideline, but he’s a proven commodity on the recruiting trail. He was a key closer for Freeze, playing a lead role in signing blue-chippers Greg Little, Javon Patterson, and D.K. Metcalf. When Freeze resigned in July of last year, Luke stepped in to hold the 2018 cycle together, signing the No. 31 class in the country despite an interim tag and the continuing uncertainty of the NCAA situation.
This class may not be loaded with blue-chippers, but it doesn’t lack for talent. Consider Jerrion Ealy, a four-star out of Jackson Prep who’s turbo-button acceleration and uncanny backfield vision have him ranked as the third-best running back prospect in the country. Or how ‘bout versatile four-star defender Diwun Black, who’s ranked as the nation’s No. 3 interior linebacker, but has the athleticism to end up at safety. And then there’s dual-threat quarterback Grant Tisdale, considered a four-star by both Rivals and ESPN, who could be a devastating weapon in offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s run-oriented spread attack.
Luke isn’t done, either. He has a good chance to land four-star wideout Jonathan Mingo; hulking four-star defensive end Byron Young said last month that the Rebels are coming on strong; and rumors put a good chance on four-star athlete Byron Turnage flipping from Bama. The Rebels are also in the running for the top recruit in the state of Mississippi: five-star linebacker Nakobe Dean, who’s brother is a walk-on sophomore on Luke’s roster.
“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.”
There may be no better barometer for a program’s public perception than its commit list. The fact that talented prospects are pledging to Ole Miss just six months after Freeze slinked out the back door with the house on fire represents a sea change. Its the type of positive momentum that breeds itself—other top ‘croots will see the Rebels listed near the top of the rankings and think, Hmm, maybe that’s not a bad place to go after all.
There’s a long way to Signing Day and there are no guarantees in ‘crootin. Maybe this class falls apart between now and February. But the fact that Ole Miss is having this type of success at any point in this year’s cycle is an indication that the program will be able to keep its head above water in the wake of the NCAA scandal.