Recruiting has been a struggle for Matt Luke this cycle. Yes, Ole Miss came out of the early signing period ranked among the nation’s top 25, but that was built on the back of quantity instead of quality: just three of the 25 signatures acquired last month came from four-star prospects. The Rebels have fewer four-star commits (four) than any other team in the top 25 save for South Carolina, who has an equal number of four-stars but five fewer total commits.
Ole Miss had five four-stars heading into Tuesday, but that changed when Jackson Prep running back Jerrion Ealy, who’d been the only Rebel commit ranked inside the nation’s top 100 prospects, announced his de-commitment on Twitter.
I will be signing on February 6! pic.twitter.com/5L7h29Xi7C— Jerrion Ealy (@ealy_1k) January 8, 2019
Ealy, who’d been pledged to Ole Miss since December of 2017, is ranked by 247Sports as the nation’s fourth-best running back and 45th best prospect overall.
It’s interesting that Ealy’s announcement comes just days after Ole Miss’ hiring of offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez, a brand name known for his innovative rushing attack. The architect of the modern read-option, Rich Rod helmed offenses that ranked in the top 25 nationally in adjusted run rate during his last two seasons at Arizona.
Why this isn’t a big deal for Ole Miss
Here’s the thing: no matter what school Ealy inks with come signing day, there’s a very good chance he’ll never see the field for them. That’s because he’s projected by just about everyone to be a first-round pick in this summer’s MLB Draft, meaning he’d have to turn down a big baseball paycheck to play college football. MLB.com puts Ealy among baseball’s top 20 prospects; Perfect Game says he’s the seventh best high school player in his class.
Ealy himself hasn’t said either way what decision he’ll make. He probably won’t know himself until after the draft in June.
Why this is a big deal for Ole Miss
For starters, it’s entirely possible that Ealy does end up playing college ball. If that happens, the Rebels would miss out on more than just a stellar football player; Mike Bianco would lose an elite outfielder who’s said he’ll play both sports if he ends up in college.
But even if Ealy does go pro, this still isn’t a great look for Luke, who had several high-profile misses during the early signing period. Recruiting is about storytelling; telling the story of why your program is the best fit for a recruit. The narrative that Luke is no doubt using right now is one of resurgence, of a program battered by adversity banding together to climb back to its rightful place.
But that story needs rising action. There has to be some sort of momentum, on-field or off. A 5-7 season that saw Ole Miss lose its last five games certainly doesn’t offer that, but collecting a handful of top recruiting commitments certainly could. Just ask Hugh Freeze, who used commitments from Laquon Treadwell in 2013 and Shea Patterson in 2015 to build the two most prolific classes in program history.
That’s what Luke loses with Ealy’s de-commitment: the ability to point at an elite prospect—one from Mississippi, no less—and say, “See, we’re building something here. You can be a part of this.”
There are still guys Luke can name drop on his recruiting visits—wideout Dannis Jackson, a top-150 prospect, is already signed and fellow four-star pass-catcher Jonathon Mingo is expected to in February—but losing Ealy is no doubt a blow to his program’s momentum.