Despite a 3-8first season at Ole Miss, coach Ed Orgeron used his high-powered recruitingskills to land a top 15 class
Ole miss coach EdOrgeron has a reputation as one of the best recruiters in the country. This isthe man, after all, who as the recruiting coordinator at USC from 2001 through'04 was instrumental in the building of a dynasty. He is personable yetrelentless in his pursuit of blue-chip recruits, but perhaps his best sellingjob this winter came early last month when he landed two new assistants:offensive line coach Art Kehoe and offensive coordinator Dan Werner, who wereamong four Miami coaches fired after the team's 40-3 loss to LSU in the PeachBowl.
Their arrival inOxford was what helped persuade Brent Schaeffer, the country's top-rated juniorcollege quarterback, to choose Ole Miss over N.C. State and Wisconsin onnational signing day last week. And largely because the Rebels got Schaeffer,who threw for 2,970 yards and 40 touchdowns and ran for 860 yards and 10 scoreslast fall at College of the Sequoias in Visalia, Calif., their recruiting classwas rated among the top 15 by most analysts.
Not bad for aprogram that was only 3-8 in Orgeron's first season. While 13 of the 30recruits are homegrown (box, right)-the top-ranked player in the stateaccording to Scout.com, 6'1", 235-pound running back Cordera Eason ofMeridian High, among them-Ole Miss signed 17 from seven other states, includingfive from California. "What they were doing was like nothing I'd everseen," says Andy Siegel, who was Schaeffer's offensive coordinator atCollege of the Sequoias. "They didn't send just one person out here. Theysent the whole staff-somebody different every week." Werner, who made twotrips to see Schaeffer, visited every offensive player Ole Miss was after.
The staff'spersuasiveness even worked on players already on the team. Last month middlelinebacker Patrick Willis, a second-team All-America, decided to return for hissenior season rather than enter the NFL draft. "That may have been oursecond-biggest recruit, besides Schaeffer," says Hugh Freeze, the tightends coach and recruiting coordinator.
A former standoutat Deerfield Beach (Fla.) High, Schaeffer started three games and saw action infour others as a freshman at Tennessee in 2004 before a broken collarbonesidelined him for the rest of the regular season. The following April he leftKnoxville after being charged with misdemeanor assault following a fight withanother student. (In June, Schaeffer pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and wassentenced to six months of judicial diversion.) He will be counted on to boostan offense that averaged only 13.5 points per game, ranking 115th in DivisionI-A. Werner plans to install the balanced attack he used at Miami, and thecoaches' familiarity with one another-Werner and Orgeron were on the Hurricanesstaff in 1988 and '89, and Werner and Kehoe worked together a total of eightyears-should help the returning offensive players make a smooth transition.
The quarterbacks,all but redshirt freshman Billy Tapp new to the program, will be starting fromscratch. In addition to Schaeffer, the Rebels picked up another juco transfer,Bruce Hall from Northeast Mississippi Community College, and signedCalifornia's career leader in passing yardage, Michael Herrick of ValenciaHigh, who may get redshirted. Because Schaeffer won't arrive in Oxford untilJune, Hall will be the No. 1 quarterback going into spring practice. (Hallenrolled in January, while Schaeffer will finish the academic year at Collegeof the Sequoias.) The backup quarterback at the beginning of last season,Robert Lane, now splits time between fullback and tight end, and the starterfor the last three games, Ethan Flatt, quit the team in December to concentrateon classwork.
Schaeffer notonly has to get ready in a hurry but also has to stay healthy.
Joe Paterno hashad a longstanding policy to not speak about his recruiting class on signingday, but last week the 79-year-old Penn State coach broke with tradition-thoughhe still wasn't jumping up and down. "I think overall it was a good yearfor us, and we'll see what happens," he said. The special occasion was theannouncement of a 24-player class that made every top 10 list and was ranked ashigh as No. 4 (behind USC, Florida and Texas).
Riding themomentum of an 11-1 season that was capped by a 26-23 triple-overtime win overFlorida State in the Orange Bowl, Penn State signed nine defensive linemen,including 6'3", 260-pound blue-chipper Maurice Evans of Christ the KingHigh in Middle Village, N.Y., and one of the nation's top quarterbacks, PatDevlin of Downington East High in Exton, Pa. Overall the class is being hailedas the school's best since the LaVar Arrington-led 1997 class was a consensusNo. 2 behind Florida State.
And while punditsdebate the reasons why the Nittany Lions were able to put together such astellar group, the most logical answer may be simply that Penn State is winningagain. Though it had sent out dozens of scholarship offers, Penn State, whichin 2003 and '04 won a total of seven games, had only eight oral commitmentsentering December. But after winning the Big Ten title-with the help of severalhigh-profile freshmen, no less-the coaches went into the important Decemberrecruiting period with added ammunition.
"They go from4-7 [in 2004] to 11-1, and it kind of convinced some of the more importantrecruits in this class that time hasn't passed Paterno by," says analystPhil Grosz, who has followed Penn State recruiting for 26 years.
In January theclass came together with commitments from Devlin, Evans, 300-pound offensivelineman Antonio Logan-El of Forestville (Md.) High, and defensive back A.J.Wallace of McDonough High in Pomfret, Md., who had not even considered theNittany Lions until they beat Ohio State on Oct. 8. At least five players whohad made oral commitments to other schools, including Devlin (Miami) andLogan-El (Maryland), wound up signing with Penn State instead. "We peckedaway at a couple of kids," Paterno said. "We thought maybe we'd have achance to expose them more to Penn State [in hopes] they might want toreconsider their decision, and fortunately we got some kids."
• Read more fromStewart Mandel at SI.com/collegefootball.