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Lane Kiffin’s first recruiting class at Ole Miss is exactly what it needs to be

All business. No more, no less.

Josh McCoy-Ole Miss Athletics

Ole Miss’ first National Signing Day under new head coach Lane Kiffin is in the books, and the 2020 recruiting class is ranked No. 39 at day’s end, per 247Sports’ Team Rankings.

It is neither captivating, nor inadequate. It is sufficient.

Kiffin took over on December 7, 2019. Less than two weeks before the early signing, he inherited a recruiting class under a cloud of uncertainty after the firing of Matt Luke, took a (momentary) step back, hit the ground running, and did so his way.

The early signing period was actually pretty good.

Almost immediately after the hire was announced, Miles Battle, Demarcus Gregory and Grant Tisdale took their names out of the transfer portal, and Chandler Tuitt and Carter Colquitt made it clear they were to stay. The stigma around Ole Miss’ new head coach had already pulled its weight and kept the the former three-star offensive linemen, four-star quarterback, and four-star receivers in Oxford.

Though the 2020 class may not have any big-time receivers when all said and done, Battle and Gregory staying must be considered as wins. Just look at this catch from Gregory.

Not a bad start to the incumbency.

Shortly thereafter, the early signing period came and went without any surprises, and a lot of stagnancy. Kiffin and a staff that was less than 30 percent complete had to sift through the verbal commitments and targets list passed along from the previous regime, make decisions on which players fit the mold of the new program vision, and have difficult conversations with those who did not.

The Rebels signed 12 players and held the No. 40 ranked class on December 19th, just 12 days after the new hire was announced. It was not an exhilarating day, but it was fine. Despite the misses that came on a few top-tier names, Kiffin and offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby added to their quarterback room, landed two large offensive tackles, kept a playmaker at running back in-state, and helped fill one of the biggest needs with a four-star tight end. In addition, Kiffin and his largely incomplete staff added five players crucial to rebuilding the depth on defense. It was a sensible, comfortable day with a lot to build on.

Even without an immediate splash, Kiffin’s ability to retain and recruit the talent he wanted was clear. Heck, even four-star tackle Chris Morris out of Memphis considered Ole Miss to the point of an official visit, after he virtually told Luke there was no way. The rejuvenated stigma surrounding Ole Miss was real, and only continued to grow as an impressive staff was finalized.

Beyond the high-school recruiting platform, junior college transfers and the fairly new wrinkle of the transfer portal have become increasingly important non-traditional components to filling out a class.

January showed more help is on the way.

The dominoes began to fall with spring enrollees as the No. 8 junior college cornerback Lakevias Daniel stayed true to his in-state commitment on early signing day, followed a month later by Kenny Yeboah, a 6’5, 240 pound immediately-eligible graduate transfer tight end from Temple, and former Georgia defensive back Otis Reese, who will have to sit out in 2020. Had the Lane train stopped there, it would have been considered a success rolling into National Signing Day, but the good news kept on coming.

Shortly after taking his official visit to Oxford, four-star running back Henry Parrish verbally committed to coach Kevin Smith, Lebby and Kiffin over offers from his home-state schools Florida, Florida State and Miami, as well as Michigan, Oregon, Tennessee, Penn State and Pittsburgh, where he had previously committed.

The nation’s 155th ranked recruit adds another offensive weapon to a youthful Ole Miss offense after running for 2,319 yards and 28 touchdowns in his senior season.

Two days later, and two weeks before National Signing Day, Kiffin pulled his first trophy fish into the boat. Demon Clowney, a four-star defensive end and No. 78 overall recruit who had previously committed to LSU, has already enrolled for the spring semester.

The cousin of NFL end Jadeveon Clowney needs to grow into his frame, but brings elite hybrid linebacker/end athleticism to a defense in need of rebuilding. Talent aside, the reverberation of this signing had Ole Miss back in the national media for a big-time get, and set the tone for the energy surrounding the program. He joined seven additional early enrollees who got to campus in January as the final kicker before signing day, and it was a big one.

Despite a few whiffs, February served its purpose.

The Rebels began National Signing Day with the 43rd ranked class and primary needs on the interior defensive line, with depth on the offensive line, and in the secondary. There was really nowhere to go but up.

Seemingly sucking all preexisting momentum out of the air, the day began with a sour taste, as Memphis-native offensive tackle Marcus Henderson chose Arkansas. The melancholy lull continued throughout the day as high-interest recruits went elsewhere, a handful of late-offers moved on, Donovan Kaufman stayed true to his Vanderbilt pledge, Malachi Wideman signed with Tennessee, and long-standing verbal cornerback commit Daran Branch flipped and followed Matt Luke to Georgia.

“We lost some kids, obviously, like everyone does,” Kiffin said in a press conference on Wednesday. “A lot of that was relationship-based. Other places had longer and more established relationships than we did. We are looking forward to next year already to build those relationships.”

Intermixed sporadically throughout a dissatisfying day came an influx of Big Uglies. Three-star offensive tackle, and former Arizona commit Cedric Melton was the first signee in the Rebels’ February grouping.

The 6’5, 262-pound Texas native handled top high school competition all season in the Lone Star state and brings a quick first step and strong base to the edge. Should he get in the weight room with Wilson Love and the strength staff, Melton could be a key component in the trenches as an upperclassman.

Melton was followed by two other three-star tackles of significant stature in Brady Ward and Luke Shouse, who both will grayshirt this season and will not be considered in the scholarship count until December. Arguably the biggest and only positive takeaway from Wednesday’s signing day is the added depth to an area in need, and an illustrated desire to play for new offensive line coach Randy Clements amongst high schoolers.

Parrish was the only other player to sign with Ole Miss as of the late-evening on February 5th, formally putting ink behind his verbal commitment. Four future Rebels joined 14 early signees and transfers on National Signing Day, all-but-finalizing the class at 18 total additions.

Three more possible additions could really make things interesting.

The caveat lies with outstanding National Letters of Intent from Zachary Evans (the No. 1 running back in the class), four-star receiver Leonard Manuel, and four-star safety Marc Britt. Evans is most notably in the news due to his wild and crazy recruitment that has seen programs such as Alabama, Georgia, LSU, and Texas A&M all at one point lead for his signature.

Hell, he signed with the Bulldogs and Kirby Smart but they let him out of his LOI so he could re-open his recruitment.

All three had not signed as of Wednesday night, and at the very least had Ole Miss on their radars. Should one, or all three, have a sudden change-of-heart and head to Oxford, it would be a huge push across the finish line. Kiffin even mentioned the prospect of a “really quality running back” still available, meaning Evans, who visited campus in January and will likely make his decision later in the spring.

Though the day itself was not flashy, exciting, or as-hoped in many ways, when the final tally comes together, Kiffin’s first recruiting class at Ole Miss finished 39th nationally. Fine.

Had expectations began the day with high-profile flips and big-time gets, it wasn’t good. However, with a rational mind and understanding of circumstance surrounding a completed staff of just two and a half weeks old, it could have been much worse.

“I know everybody gets up here and says ‘this is the best class ever,’” Kiffin said. “Every coach says that. This is a good class with some good players. But we’ll sign better classes every year that we’re here and deeper classes that fill everything we need.”

It was a transition class in every sense, meaning that the signing period came under a time of changeover between two coaching staffs entirely different in strategy and culture. To put it in perspective, look at the numbers from the last four first-year classes from head coaches at Ole Miss.

Ed Orgeron took the helm in December of 2005 and finished with the No. 32 ranked class. His successor Houston Nutt was hired in late November of 2008 and finished with a bloated No. 31 ranked class, in part from over-signing. He would later be under fire for NCAA violations.

From there, Hugh Freeze was brought on in December of 2011 and signed an impressive top-20 class — which as we know now (and probably knew then), came with some serious help from the bagmen as well.

Remember too, these three coaches came prior to the early signing period, allowing nearly two full months to hit the recruiting trail. Kiffin had less than two weeks to sign the majority of this 2020 class.

Luke was the first Rebel coach to work under the rushed parameters of the early signing period, but had a full season to recruit as the interim head coach, and managed the 32nd ranked class. Kiffin was without the luxury of a full fall, or a full staff, and finished just seven spots behind his predecessor. Not too bad.

While many of the SEC’s top programs may have signed 25 to 30 recruits over the last two months, Kiffin chose to take a more tempered approach, knowing the reality of the situation. His targeted, direct effort strayed away from “reaching” beyond his means, and focused on leaving roster space for alternative options, such as spring transfers, and the future.

“We left ourselves some room and didn’t reach on kids just to fill spots,” Kiffin said. “That puts us in position for kids that are still out there and also puts us in a position for grad transfers, regular transfers and we can save some room for next year too.”

Ever since Kiffin was announced as the new head coach in December, he has talked about assembling a staff that would not only bring the proper Xs and Os to a program in need of rejuvenation, but recruit beyond the confines of which Ole Miss is familiar. In theory, the staff he has hired does exactly that. But after a lackluster finish to the 2020 recruiting period, there is certainly room for criticism and questions. The 2021 class will be crucial, and Kiffin knows that.

“We’ve already started on next year’s class, having a whole year to do that,” he said.

There is no telling how the coming months will shape out, but for all intents and purposes, the 2020 recruiting class is complete. Considering the quick turnaround, short-staffed state of affairs, and calculated numbers game, it does what it needed to. Kiffin and his recruiting team did a good job salvaging a chaotic situation, but more importantly, brought the excitement back surrounding the program.

People are talking, recruits are watching, and the process is underway. Be patient.