You can make a strong argument that December 19, 2018—the beginning of college football’s early signing period—was the low point of Matt Luke’s tenure at Ole Miss. After losing the final six games of the 2018 season to finish 5-7, Luke desperately needed a public relations boost during the recruiting cycle. He quietly signed 25 prospects that day (22 of them three-stars), but loudly missed on the majority of Mississippi’s highest-profile talent. It was a body blow for a staff already hurting for fan support.
Fast forward 50 days and you can make the argument that February 6, 2019 was the high point in Luke’s tenure. He emphatically scrawled an exclamation point at the end of what had been an underwhelming class, landing signatures from a five-star and a trio of four-star prospects within the span of six hours. Most thought that a Rebel class built more on quantity than quality would slide out of the top 25; instead, it climbed three spots to No. 22. Of the seven prospects who had Ole Miss hats on the table Wednesday, six of them signed with the Rebels (as expected, defensive end Byron Young picked Bama). It was a dream close.
Taken alongside Luke’s high-profile coordinator hirings in late December, the recruiting haul on Wednesday sends Ole Miss into the 2019 season with something few expected: genuine momentum. Nine days before the disappointment of the early signing period, Luke nabbed former Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre to be his defensive coordinator. Two weeks after the early period, he hired Rich Rodriguez to run his offense. Despite both men’s dubious connections to sexual assault and harassment investigations, the hirings were lauded for their potential on-field impact.
There’s no doubt those hirings were a critical difference between Luke’s December strikeout and the home run he hit on Wednesday.
The day started when Jonathan Mingo, a four-star wideout thought to be a potential Signing Day flip to Mississippi State, strode into his announcement ceremony rocking a red-and-white Ole Miss polo. State pushed hard for the Brandon, Miss. native down the stretch—Rivals reporter Chad Simmons tweeted that Mingo’s decision went “back and forth all night”—but Rich Rod was reportedly able to calm anxieties about Mingo’s fit in the Rebels’ new offense.
With A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf and DaMarkus Lodge NFL-bound, Ole Miss needed to reload at receiver. They have. With the 6’2, 200-pound Mingo on board, the Rebels have collected a quartet of four-star receivers over the past two signing classes (including early period signee Dannis Jackson, who ranks inside the top-200 overall prospects in 2019).
Potentially throwing to that crew of pass catchers is four-star QB John Rhys Plumlee, who committed to Ole Miss a few days before Signing Day after backing away from Georgia. Rising sophomore Matt Corral will be the heavy favorite to start next season, but having another four-star on the roster to push him isn’t a bad thing. If Plumlee redshirts next season, he could have two full seasons as the starter after Corral’s graduation in 2021.
The days when Ole Miss was unable to sign arm talent out of high school seem distant. Hugh Freeze’s uptempo spread and the success of JUCO transfers Bo Wallace, Chad Kelly and Jordan Ta’amu has made Oxford a much more appealing spot for young passers. While the Rebels still haven’t had a truly successful high school QB recruit since Eli (Shea Patterson started just 10 games before transferring), Corral and Plumlee look ready to change that.
Next on National Signing Day came signatures from three-star D-linemen LeDarrius Cox and Brandon Mack. Cox in particular was a win for an Ole Miss defense in desperate need of an interior playmaker. The dude is a behemoth: at 6’5, 312-pounds, the 18-year old is already an inch taller and four pounds heavier than the average NFL defensive tackle. Ole Miss struggled to generate inside push last season, finishing 118th nationally in the rate of tackles made at or behind the line of scrimmage. Cox isn’t an interior slasher, but as the nose guard in MacIntyre’s new 3-4 scheme, he’ll be tasked with eating up space and blockers to allow D-ends and linebackers to penetrate.
The middle of MacIntyre’s defense got even stronger a few hours later when the nation’s top JUCO inside linebacker prospect committed to Ole Miss. Thought to be an Arkansas lean after de-committing from Tennessee, Lakia Henry was pulled into the Rebels’ orbit late in the cycle. A coaches trip to Dodge City Community College in mid-January convinced Henry to take an official visit to Oxford two weeks later, which in turn convinced him to stick around for a couple years.
“[MacIntyre] left a good first impression with me,” Henry told the Ole Miss Spirit last month. “He’s a really good down-to-earth dude. Coach MacIntyre went over the new defensive changes they are going to. He said I’m needed, and I’m a perfect fit for their puzzle.”
A perfect fit indeed. With Cox eating up space inside, Mack and four-star D-end Sam Williams (who signed during the early period) attacking on the edge and Henry and returning top tackler Mohamed Sanogo patrolling the middle, this could be a salty front over the next couple of seasons.
Then came the highest profile announcement of the day: live on ESPN, five-star running back Jerrion Ealy donned a powder blue Ole Miss cap and threw up the Landshark. “For the next four years,” he told the cameras, “I’ll be attending the University of Mississippi.”
In reality, it’s still very much in doubt whether Ealy, who’s expected to go in the first round of this year’s MLB Draft, will in fact end up attending Ole Miss. Depending on when he’s selected, he’d be turning down somewhere between $2 million and $5 million in signing bonus money to play college ball. He’s been mum on that decision, though he did admit to ESPN on Wednesday that “baseball has my heart” (he would play both sports if he went to Ole Miss).
Regardless of Ealy’s ultimate decision, his choice on National Signing Day is still a momentous event for a program that hasn’t seen that calibre of athlete declare on national television since before the NCAA penalties were handed down. Taken alongside the other big signings on Wednesday, it shows that perception of the program is changing; that the narrative is shifting from one of scandal and decline to one of regeneration.
Luke’s hirings of MacIntyre and Rodriguez lurched the program out of stagnation. It’s now up to those three men to determine whether the momentum continues or grinds to a halt on the field in 2019.