Last Friday night, about 24 hours before Ole Miss’ defense was obliterated by Alabama on national television, a 6’0, 220-pound cruise missile of a linebacker was laying similar waste to opponents on a high school football field about an hour’s drive northwest of Oxford. Nakobe Dean, the consensus top recruiting prize in the state of Mississippi, put on his customary pageant of otherworldly athleticism during a road game in Lake Cormorant.
Ranked the 15th best prospect in the entire country, Dean is the type of game-changing athlete around which Rebels head coach Matt Luke could rebuild his decaying defense. Five months out from National Signing Day, though, the Horn Lake product is considered to be leaning toward the Georgia Bulldogs.
Were Dean to hit the road for Athens—or Baton Rouge, Tuscaloosa, Tallahassee or any of the other major college football towns vying for his talent—it’d mark the second time in three years that the top player in Mississippi has escaped the state’s borders. In 2016, Cam Akers, considered by some to be the best Magnolia State running back since Marcus Dupree, broke Ole Miss’ heart by picking up an FSU hat during a live-streamed commitment ceremony.
While one might assume that elite programs outside of Mississippi routinely pickpocket the state’s top talent, it’s actually quite rare. That should provide hope for Rebel fans that Dean ends up staying home.
The No. 1 recruit in Mississippi usually stays in Mississippi
Akers’ decision to relocate to Tallahassee made him just the third top-ranked Mississippi prospect to leave since 2000. That year, quarterback Jason Campbell signed with Auburn. A decade later, offensive tackle Shon Coleman followed him to The Plains.
No. 1 Mississippi recruits since 2000
|YEAR||PLAYER||WHO THEY SIGNED WITH|
|YEAR||PLAYER||WHO THEY SIGNED WITH|
|2001||Chris Spencer||Ole Miss|
|2002||Jerious Norwood||Miss. State|
|2003||Deljuan Robinson||Miss. State|
|2004||Garry Pack||Ole Miss|
|2005||Jerrell Powe||Ole Miss|
|2006||Allen Walker||Ole Miss|
|2007||Chris Strong||Ole Miss|
|2008||DeAndre Brown||Southern Miss|
|2009||Patrick Patterson||Ole Miss|
|2011||C.J. Johnson||Ole Miss|
|2012||Channing Ward||Ole Miss|
|2013||Chris Jones||Miss. State|
|2014||Rod Taylor||Ole Miss|
|2015||Javon Patterson||Ole Miss|
|2016||Jeffery Simmons||Miss. State|
|2017||Cam Akers||Florida State|
|2018||Malik Heath||Miss. State|
If the state’s top player stays in Mississippi, he usually heads to Oxford. That’s happened 10 times in the last 17 years, with just five No. 1 recruits signing with Mississippi State and only Deandre Brown signing with Southern Miss.
So why is that? And will the trend continue this year?
In-state loyalty is a real thing.
Kids take pride in their roots and representing for their hometown and families. I think that that’s because kids in Mississippi are proud to be from the ‘ssip. You don’t have to be a Mississippi person to feel this way, but the numbers don’t lie. Lots of these former top players had big-time offers to go elsewhere and chose not to.
- 2002 Brandon, Miss. running back Jerious Norwood took a last minute trip to Gainesville before deciding to stay home and play his college ball in Starkville.
- 2005 Waynesboro, Miss. defensive tackle Jerrell Powe was all but draped in Auburn’s blue and orange but chose to burn them and go to Ole Miss.
- 2006 Olive Branch, Miss. linebacker Allen Walker was thought by most to be headed to Gainesville or Clemson but signed with the Rebs.
- 2008 Ocean Springs, Miss. wide receiver and U.S. Army All-American DeAndre Brown had offers from Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, Miami (Fla.), Tennessee, and Texas Tech, but ultimately chose to stay on the coast and play for Southern Miss.
The in-state teams often provide immediate playing time.
This isn’t an indictment of the Mississippi schools, but outside of a few recent years, they haven’t been beating down the door in Atlanta or going to access bowls. The reality is that the talent level is lower than most of the big out-of-state programs like Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, etc. Those programs have much larger recruiting budgets and networks.
That means an elite player typically has a shorter path to the field in Oxford, Starkville or Hattiesburg. Staying home to attend college gives them a fair shake at some early PT because the roster, top-to-bottom, isn’t as loaded as Nick Saban’s or Kirby Smart’s.
Take Akers, for instance. When he signed with Jimbo Fisher’s Seminole team in 2017, the U.S. Army All-American was the fourth running back signed in that class. As a sophomore this year, he’s sharing carries with upperclassman Jacques Patrick. Akers would been a Day 1 starter at Ole Miss, toting the rock 25-30 times a game, no doubt.
Nakobe Dean will face similar competition if he ends up at Georgia or Alabama. In Tuscaloosa, Saban has two four-star linebackers committed right now and a current roster loaded with 19(!) non-senior ‘backers. In Athens, Smart has three linebackers committed as of this writing and 10 non-senior linebackers on his sideline.
The numbers are obviously better at Ole Miss, where years of recruiting misses have thinned the linebacker corps. The Rebels only have two 2019 linebackers committed, and while there are 12 non-senior linebackers on the current roster, Nakobe is better than all of them.