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How Hugh Freeze and the Rebels spent signing day

OXFORD, Miss. — It's 6:52 on Wednesday morning when Hugh Freeze sits down at the giant circular conference table softly humming a tune to himself.

He's an old pro at this by now, although National Signing Day has a way of making the most contented of souls uncharacteristically jumpy.

"I would have been bouncing off the walls three years ago," Freeze admits.

The Ole Miss coaches' meeting room, which has been transformed into the Rebels' recruiting war room, is already buzzing with energy. Red-eyed assistant coaches, the grind of recruiting obvious in their faces, pop in and out of the room with cell phones glued to their ears and occasionally greet recruits on the other end of the phone with a hearty "Hotty Toddy."

"Until you have the papers and they're signed by everybody, you never feel good," Barney Farrar warns in his best Mississippi twang.

 

 

Farrar, Ole Miss' assistant athletic director for high school and junior college relations, is in his second stint on the Rebels' staff. He has spent much of his life in the Magnolia State, both as a player and a coach, and learned a long time ago that recruiting can turn without the slightest of warnings.

"It's what makes these last few days so nerve-racking," Farrar says. "Sometimes you have kids pee down your back and swear to you that it's raining."

As fate would have it, Farrar would go from experiencing ecstasy to agony later in the day on a couple of in-state kids he had been feverishly recruiting for two years. Receiver A.J. Brown of Starkville lit up the room when he announced for Ole Miss that morning. Defensive end Jeffery Simmons of Macon cleared out the room a few hours later when he slipped on a Mississippi State cap while announcing his decision.

There are inherent highs and lows in recruiting, and perhaps the best indicator of the massive strides Ole Miss has made under Freeze is that the coach found himself giving the staff a pep talk later in the day despite the Rebels finishing with the nation's No. 4 class, their second top-five haul in the past four years.

It's a credit to the way Freeze has raised expectations. The Rebels expect to get everybody on their board, and when they don't, they're genuinely miffed. Some key targets slipped away right at the very end, including cornerback Shyheim Carter (Alabama), outside linebacker Mique Juarez (UCLA), defensive end Jonathan Kongbo (Tennessee) and Simmons (Mississippi State).

Hugh Freeze was constantly working the phone during an eventful — and fruitful — signing day for the Rebels. Chris Low / ESPN.com

This is easily the most complete class the Rebels have signed under Freeze, a class with 13 ESPN 300 prospects and the only class in the country to include two 5-star prospects in ESPN's rankings — offensive tackle Greg Little of Allen, Texas, and defensive tackle Benito Jones of Waynesboro, Mississippi. It's an important class, too, because the crown jewels of the 2013 class that was ranked No. 5 nationally — Laremy Tunsil, Laquon Treadwell and Robert Nkemdiche — are all gone.

"It's a crazy world and a crazy business," a smiling Freeze told his staff as the four big-screen televisions in the room continued with non-stop recruiting coverage. "We signed the highest-rated class in the history of the school, and there's some dejection. I feel the sting, too. But it's a great class. We're not going to mope. That's not who we are.

"Let's go get the top guys in this state next year and continue to beat Bama and Mississippi State on the field and put ourselves in these positions every year."

"Let's go get the top guys in this state next year and continue to beat Bama and Mississippi State on the field and put ourselves in these positions every year."

Hugh Freeze

The fact Ole Miss is even swimming in these waters is still hard for some to believe, leading to constant chatter that the Rebels have cheated their way into national relevance. Between last week's news of an NCAA notice of allegations, Laremy Tunsil's seven-game suspension last year and Bret Bielema's cryptic comments on Wednesday (which he apologized for and clarified later in the day), there's a perception — fair or not — that Ole Miss' transformation into a recruiting heavyweight under Freeze is a sure sign the Rebels must be breaking NCAA rules..

Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork vehemently rejects that notion, and says it's a slap in the face to how diligently Freeze and his staff have worked on the recruiting trail.

"We're not going to run away from anything," Bjork says. "I know what we stand for, what we do and the integrity in this room."

Freeze has grown weary of the entire narrative and adds, "It's gotten to the point now that you hear it every time we sign somebody, but as you see, it's not like we're getting everybody. We'll keep doing things the right way, and we're not going away."

The Rebels finished in the top 10 in the polls this past season and have beaten eight nationally ranked teams over the last two seasons, second only to Alabama in the SEC in that span, and have also beaten the Tide on the field each of the last two seasons.

There's a sense among some in the college football world that Ole Miss still doesn't belong. But Freeze, who inherited an Ole Miss program in 2012 that had lost 14 straight SEC games, has built a program and recruiting machine to last.

"It's the new normal," Freeze says.

There's an air of defiance in his voice. Some frustration, too, especially since news broke last Friday that Ole Miss had received a notice of allegations from the NCAA charging the school with violations in football, women's basketball and track and field, part of an investigation that has dragged on for more than three years.

Ole Miss wasn't surprised by anything in the NCAA report, according to Bjork, and in several cases, has already self-imposed penalties. But the timing, on the eve of signing day, was brutal, especially with 21 prospects on campus last weekend.

The Rebels didn't have anybody who was already committed change his mind after Friday's report surfaced, which is a testament to the relationships Ole Miss has been able to form with recruits and their parents. Still, the NCAA cloud that has hovered for more than three years now — even though the current football staff is named in just a handful of charges — has required its share of damage control.

"There's an onslaught of crazy stuff out there that people are telling our kids," Freeze says with a shrug.

The chemistry on Ole Miss' staff is obvious. On Tuesday, they're dining and talking shop at the Grillehouse on The Square in Oxford, where running backs coach Derrick Nix — with some help from his fellow coaches — entertains with his version of "Walking in Memphis" with a country twist.

But by early Wednesday morning, it's back to all business.

Freeze opens his staff meeting at 7 a.m. with a prayer. He asks for guidance for all of the players out there to make the choices that are right for them.

"Let us rejoice in what the day brings us," Freeze prays.

The guy with the hardest job on the planet this particular day is Chris Buttgen, Ole Miss' director of football media. His chief job is to find any live streaming he can, be it Periscope on somebody's Twitter account or a high school feed, and get it up on one of the televisions in the room in time for everybody to watch recruits make their live announcements.

Buttgen was the first Ole Miss staffer in the building. His day started at 4:45 a.m., and even with some of the coaches barking at him playfully if some of the streaming starts buffering, he's usually wearing a smile.


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