For Ole Miss, winning and recruiting go hand-in-hand
Mississippi has made a rapid rise into the upper tier of the Southeastern Conference in the standings and on the recruiting trail.
The Rebels - led by fifth-year head coach Hugh Freeze - have become a landing destination for some of the most talented players in the country.
The program's ascension in the recruiting ranks can be contributed to a little luck and a lot of winning. The Rebels were the only team to beat eventual national champion Alabama this season and finished the year with an impressive Sugar Bowl win over Oklahoma State.
Now with national signing day coming up on Wednesday, five-star recruits are viewing Ole Miss as a potential first option, not an afterthought.
''There's definitely some strategy behind this - we've been working on this class for about 18 months,'' Freeze said. ''We identify guys nationally that we think will fit in our program and then have a very specific plan.''
One of those prized five-star recruits, quarterback prospect Shea Patterson, is already on campus after enrolling early.
Freeze is poised to land several more top prospects as part of his latest recruiting efforts. The current Ole Miss class was ranked No. 3 in the country by Scout.com and ESPN and No. 4 according to Rivals.com and 247Sports as of Monday afternoon.
The Rebels got a little lucky in 2013, when they landed a consensus top 10 that included potential first-round NFL selections defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, receiver Laquon Treadwell and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil.
Nkemdiche's older brother, linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche, was already on the Rebels' roster and Treadwell had a high school friend on the team. Safety Tony Conner, another star player from the 2013 class, played at a high school just 25 miles from Oxford.
''That's how it starts,'' said Mike Farrell, the national recruiting director for Rivals.com. ''You get some of the big-name guys. They produce, turn into players who can help you win and become potential NFL first-round picks.
''Then the floodgates open.''
Now Ole Miss is landing players without obvious geographic or family ties.
The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Patterson is from Shreveport, Louisiana, but the Rebels received a verbal commitment from the quarterback about a year ago.
The Rebels also have a verbal commitment from Gregory Little, a five-star 6-5, 318-pound offensive lineman from Allen, Texas.
''The Ole Miss brand is a national brand,'' Freeze said. ''We've been to two New Year's Six games in a row. Our coaching staff is great at building relationships.''
Freeze also has an up-tempo offensive style that helps when recruiting players. That was one reason current starting quarterback Chad Kelly - who threw for 4,042 yards and 31 touchdowns last season - picked the Rebels over several suitors coming out of junior college.
''Obviously, the coaches here know what they're doing,'' Kelly said earlier this year.
The 46-year-old Freeze has proven a natural in the world of recruiting thanks to an outgoing personality.
''Building the relationships, visiting with people, finding out the kind of people they are and what's important to them,'' Freeze said of the process. ''I think I have a knack for that.''
He said the explosion of social media has added a layer to recruiting that's sometimes troublesome. And every year, some coaches have to overcome a tough challenge.
For Ole Miss, this year it's NCAA violations.
Freeze and his coaching staff are dealing with the fallout of the recent Notice of Allegations from the NCAA alleging rules violations in three sports, including football.
Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork released a statement on Saturday saying many of the football allegations relate ''to the former football staff in 2010.'' Bjork said there's also information in the allegations about Tunsil's seven-game suspension from the past season after the NCAA ruled he received improper benefits.
Freeze has said he's confident that his staff recruits ''the right way.'' He's used to handling the criticism - he said it comes with the territory when a team has newfound success on the field or on the recruiting trail.
He's only focused on things he can control.
In recruiting - when dealing with the whims of a 17-or 18-year-old - sometimes that isn't much.
''The last week,'' Freeze said. ''is always pretty anxious.''
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