Last May, Ole Miss’ recruiting strategy was revealed.
The program, under first-year head coach Hugh Freeze, sent out more than 240 verbal offers to recruits around the country following the 2012 signing day hoping the best kids would fill the 25-30 open spots on their roster.
"You have to recruit nationally," Freeze told the Clarion-Ledger at the time. "I think you can do that at Ole Miss, but in order to do that you got to get into the game with them."
Ten months later, Ole Miss’ odd and mocked recruiting strategy has the Rebels on pace for one of the nation’s best recruiting classes and the best class in Ole Miss history.
“When I got here, that’s what we talked about, recruiting at the highest level,” Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork, who was hired in March 2012, told Yahoo! Sports. “Going up against the Alabama’s and the LSU’s and the Florida’s and the Georgia’s and whoever’s out there - going up against them and not being afraid.
“It’s that saying, if you’re not on the dance floor, you can’t dance. And so, we had to get on the dance floor and that meant we had to take a little bit of a shotgun approach by putting all of those offers out there, but then we zeroed in on where do we have the best chance? And I think that’s what you saw today with this class. It wasn’t necessarily surprising that the plan was followed and we were able to get in the door, just the national splash happened so fast, I think that’s where the surprising element comes into play for everybody.”
Ole Miss received signatures from Robert Nkemdiche, the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit, five-star offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, the No. 14 player nationally. They landed the nation’s top receiving recruit in Laquan Treadwell and four-star safety Antonio Conner, who’s the No. 86 player in the country.
It was a haul unlike any other Ole Miss had ever seen and this after just one season under Freeze and a mediocre 7-6 campaign.
“People have described it as kind of the perfect storm,” Bjork said. “I don’t know if anyone could have imagined this type of momentum on signing day. Except for we had a plan. We had a plan to go after the top kids. They stayed the course and built relationships and then it snowballed. When you’ve got the No. 1 player talking about Ole Miss throughout the fall and the recruiting period, people are going to listen to that. Other recruits are going to listen to that. And then recruits started recruiting each other and it just kind of fueled the entire process.”
So how did they do it? Well, it’s no secret that Nkemdiche’s brother, Denzel, played an integral role in getting his brother on campus and that Anthony Standifer, who was Laquan Treadwell’s high school teammate and good friend, played a major role in Ole Miss' recruiting.
“Obviously, we had some natural ins to some of the top players in the nation, so I think that was very advantageous for us,” Freeze said in an interview with ESPNU. “Certainly, without those, would today be what it is? I don’t know.”
But Bjork said there were other factors as well, including several prominent national publications heralding the university and town as one of the nation’s prettiest places. But in the end, it came down to Freeze and his personality and passion throughout the recruiting process.
“The thing about coach Freeze, really at his core, he’s a teacher and he’s a high school coach. That’s how he blossomed,” Bjork said. “In this whole world of college football coaching, that was his core, that was his foundation. So, when he talks, he talks about faith, he talks about accountability, he talks about teaching, he talks about sports being more than just a game, about life and that’s a message that I think kids who have great character and want to be in that environment, they gravitate towards.
“And he’s a great orator. He can get up and he can get people fired up and motivate them and he has preached before at churches since I’ve been here. He has a gift. I think that’s special and people gravitate toward that. Plus, he’s a Mississippi guy.”
Of course many people doubted Freeze’s ability to recruit so quickly and so well and accused the program of nefarious recruiting. Treadwell posting a picture of $100 bills and former Mississippi State receiver Chad Bumphis insinuating that Ole Miss was paying players exacerbated those claims. But Bjork and Freeze vehemently denied any misdeeds and Freeze even put out a tweet last week asking for anyone with facts to let Ole Miss’ compliance office know. Bjork said he stood by his coach 100 percent.
Both Freeze and Bjork say Ole Miss’ recruiting success is a product of hard work, perseverance and not being afraid to push the envelope – literally.
“To me, no one should be surprised by this,” Bjork said. “I think because it happened so fast, you get some of these things that come up. And I think the world of social media fuels much of this from an instantaneous standpoint.
“It’s unfortunate that people don’t recognize that we do have a special place and that other people have recognized the same things nationally for a long time. Now, we have a staff that’s turning all of those things on and now we’re dealing with that. So, we’ll just put our head down and not let anyone else define who we are. Only we can do that.”
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