OXFORD, Miss. (AP) Hugh Freeze’s rapid renovation of Mississippi football has been fueled by a persistent recruiting philosophy that is grounded in grass-roots relationships, a down-home personality and even a little bit of luck.
The formula has helped the coach transform the Rebels from Southeastern Conference cellar-dwellers to the No. 3 team in the country in just three short years.
It’s not hard to find where things started to turn around – Freeze’s star-studded 2013 class. The recruits looked good on paper and now they look even better on the field.
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”There’s no doubt that class was the big cornerstone,” said Mike Farrell, the national recruiting director for Rivals.com. ”It was the seventh-ranked class in the country according to our rankings, had several star players and even more than that, it sent a message that Ole Miss would be a force in recruiting.”
The class included defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, receiver Laquon Treadwell, left tackle Laremy Tunsil and safety Tony Conner, and all four sophomores are playing major roles in the team’s success.
The Rebels (6-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) will be trying to win their eighth straight game, dating back to last season, when they host Tennessee (3-3, 0-2) on Saturday.
Not bad for the 45-year-old Freeze, who spent more than a decade as a high school coach in Memphis, Tennessee, before being hired by coach Ed Orgeron to become part of his staff at Ole Miss in 2005.
Orgeron had arrived at Ole Miss with a reputation of being a brilliant recruiter during his years as an assistant at Southern California under Pete Carroll. He didn’t have much on-field success with the Rebels – they were 10-25 during his tenure from 2005-07 – but the program’s recruiting noticeably improved.
The rosters included future NFL players like Michael Oher, Greg Hardy, Mike Wallace, John Jerry and Dexter McCluster – all recruited by Orgeron’s staff.
Freeze took notes. He observed Orgeron’s constant energy and meticulous planning and still uses the same approach nearly a decade later.
”If you’re not recruiting every day you’re getting behind,” Freeze said. ”You’ve got to win (Mississippi) – the key battles in this state. You won’t win them all, but you’ve got to win your share. And then you just stick to the 12-month plan – never vary from it. It takes everyone in this building.”
Orgeron, who lives in Mandeville, Louisiana, said he’s not surprised by Freeze’s success at Ole Miss. Freeze is a Mississippi native and Orgeron said he was always good at developing relationships with high school coaches.
”He had a passion for recruiting and he enjoyed it,” Orgeron said. ”I think his time as a high school coach was useful, because his players were recruited and he saw what he liked and what he didn’t like from college coaches. What I like the most is that he’s not just trying to get 5-star guys. He’s evaluating and finding the right fit.”
Freeze said fortunate circumstances helped him bring the 2013 class and some of his other recruiting gems together.
Nkemdiche, the 6-foot-4, 280-pound defensive lineman who was the consensus No. 1 recruit in the country, was already interested in Ole Miss because his older brother Denzel was on the roster.
Treadwell, one of the country’s elite receivers, normally would have been a tough pull from Crete, Illinois, but one of his high school friends was already on the Rebels’ roster.
And Conner was playing high school football just 25 miles from the Ole Miss campus in Batesville at a prep powerhouse known for churning out high-quality recruits.
Then there is the trek quarterback Bo Wallace took to Oxford.
Wallace was a freshman quarterback at Arkansas State in 2010 when Freeze was the program’s offensive coordinator. Wallace left Arkansas State and headed to East Mississippi Community College in 2011 and then Freeze eventually left to become head coach at Ole Miss. The two reunited at 2012 in the Magnolia State, and slowly began turning the Rebels into a winner.
Freeze has always said that once he gets a recruit on campus, he feels like he has a good chance.
”It’s because I believe in what we have here,” Freeze said. ”I believe in this place. I believe what it can do for a young man and I believe you go after the ones who are the right fit for your philosophy.”
Treadwell said Freeze’s magnetic personality helps, too.
”He’s a straightforward guy and you always feel like he’s being honest with you,” Treadwell said. ”To see what he talked about during recruiting actually happening on the field makes it pretty awesome.”
But winning in the SEC isn’t just about recruiting – all the schools in the league do that pretty well.
Freeze credits his assistants for taking a group of seniors recruited by former coach Houston Nutt and turning them into good players. That class includes Senquez Golson, Cody Prewitt and C.J. Johnson, who have been vital to this season’s success.
Prewitt was an All-American last season while Golson leads the team with five interceptions.
Said Freeze: ”We’ve developed what we’ve had (on the roster) to go with that wonderful group of sophomores.”
AP Sports Writers Greg Beacham in Los Angeles and Steve Megargee in Knoxville, Tennessee, contributed to this story.
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