While the college football world waits for the NCAA to punish Ole Miss, coach Hugh Freeze claims that the Rebels have already served plenty of time.
“We’ve suffered penalties,” Freeze said on National Signing Day. “This recruiting class was a penalty, to be under the cloud that we’re under.”
The Class of 2017 is the first one that’s been adversely affected by a years-long investigation into the Ole Miss athletic department. Instead of reeling in another Top-10 group, Freeze signed the SEC’s third-worst, per 247Sports.com.
He made sure to thank the recruits who decided to join him in Oxford despite the pending drama.
“These young men chose to come to our great university and our program amid extreme pressure,” Freeze said. “Amid extreme rhetoric that they had to hear. Some true, some not true. And yet, they and their families found this place to be the best fit for them under those circumstances. And for that, I will always be indebted to this group.”
Hugh Freeze on the Class of 2017
On recruiting during the NCAA investigation: “It was a very difficult time … With our other issues, it made it very difficult. We really had to fight together and stay together. Our deal was, ‘Consider it all joy.’ We have a great place to sell and a great environment to present to people if we can get them on campus. Our staff did a remarkable job of holding things together with staff changes and with the issues that we have going on around our program. I stand her today feeling great about our guys and our families that have joined us.”
On 5-star running back Cam Akers, who rebuffed in-state Ole Miss: “We went hard after another kid in our state early on that chose to go to another place. Then you turn your attention to, ‘What’s next for us?’ We really could’ve had a lot of backs that we wanted.”
On 2-star running back Isaiah Woullard, who got an offer less than two weeks after a tornado destroyed his Hattiesburg home: “It comes a point where you need to do the right thing. And the right thing for us to do was to sign the state’s all-time leading rusher in Isaiah Woullard. His granddad played here. Obviously, they’ve had tremendous loss here recently. That didn’t weigh totally into it, but you can’t help but say that’s a factor. When I watch his tape, which I watched 100 times … If he were playing in a different league, I think he’s a no-brainer. And that’s the question mark you have on him. But I know this: He immediately makes our university better. He immediately makes our locker room better. And I’ve got a sneaking suspicion he’s gonna be like an Evan Engram-type, that you look after three years and you think, ‘Wow, we almost messed that up.'”
On 4-star athlete D.D. Bowie, who wants to play cornerback: “D.D. we think is athletic as any kid that’s come out of this state since I’ve been here. You watch him play other sports, and he’s just really athletic … While he can be a really good receiver, too, the length and flexibility and change-of-direction that he has, if he’s able to adjust to the corner spot, I think the potential is off the charts. There’s very few long corners like him, as athletic as he is, and there’s an immediate need there for us, and I think he likes that idea. And we’re gonna get him the ball. Punt returns, kickoff returns, we think he can fill the void there, too.”
On 4-star early enrollee linebacker/defensive back Breon Dixon: “You wish you were bigger. You wish you were faster. All those things. Then you put the tape on and he makes 14 tackles and is always around the ball.”
On the linebacker position (an area of need): “Obviously, this was well-documented, this was a place we needed to improve … Brenden Williams, a mid-year guy, is already up to 237. We think he’s gonna blow up and be a 250-pound linebacker. Looking for those hidden gems like a Mike Hilton-type, we believe that Zi Baker is gonna be one of those. He qualified late. He’s long. He’s tough. When you grab his arm, you feel like he’s been swinging an ax handle.”
On 3-star defensive back Kam’ron White: “Came with us earlier. Not publicly. But I think he’s a big, rangy safety you need in this league. He has great ball skills. I’ve came to the conclusion: If kids are picking the ball on Friday night, they’re probably not going to intercept it on Saturday night. That guy intercepts the football.”
On 3-star offensive lineman Ben Brown, who will be the seventh person in his family to play for Ole Miss: “What a wonderful Ole Miss family. Three to four generations of it. To see the joyness in his father, his grandfather and him together on their official visit is pretty rewarding when you get to experience stuff like that. He’s been solid with us for such a long time. He knows us for who we are. Doesn’t let the stuff bother him that may or may not get said.”
On Ole Miss quarterback Jason Pellerin, who is likely headed for a position change: “Where does he fit in? Is he Evan Engram? Or is he the best guy to play quarterback? Or is it a combination? I didn’t want to sign two freshman. I wanted a JUCO guy and a freshman, and let’s battle it out in spring and see who the 1, 2 and 3 guys are, and where Jason fits in that. Jason needs to be on the field somewhere.”
On the quarterback ‘competition’: “Obviously, you’re one play away from playing. You get an opportunity to come play in the Southeastern Conference. We’re gonna compete for the starting job, even though we all feel like Shea’s the guy, but they’ll go out and compete this spring.”
What did he tell recruits about potential penalties? “Anything that was already public. Other than that, just kind of giving them a timeframe of when our best guess was that this could be moving, and what direction. I was able to give them what I considered to be an educated guess on worst-case scenarios. We didn’t run from it. We hit it head on. One of the things we were able to discuss was we started paying penalties for some of this stuff a couple years ago. My whole thing is just, you know us for who we are. Look at the 20-year picture, and what is the best place for your son?”
What’s the worst-case scenario? “I have no idea … I know who our coaches are. I know how college football is, and how many things you can and cannot control. I don’t know what worst-case scenario is, but we’ve talked about things: scholarship reductions. Bowl bans. Who knows? Because we haven’t had a chance to see what the charges are. We haven’t had a chance to go and argue our case. Everything when that came around was just speculation, but I wasn’t afraid of showing them here’s some things they consider as penalties, and discussing it very openly with them.”
On being personally attacked: “It was ugly. I didn’t enjoy it. You take great pride in who you are and who you do things. That’s not to say that we’ve been perfect. But I know the value I place on this job, and my name and our coaches’ name and our administration’s name. But I’m the leader of the program, so everything gets directed, pretty much, at you. Some of it’s personal with some people, probably, but I don’t talk about other schools in recruiting. I will not do that, and our staff’s in charge to do the same. Unfortunately, there’s several others that thought it was a prime opportunity to use it in recruiting. That’s the route they go, and I won’t forget who they are.”
On class rankings: “I do think we’ve met a lot of needs. How much difference is there between the No. 10-ranked class and the No. 40-ranked class? I don’t know. Probably very small. Those Top 10, there’d probably be some difference. After that, it becomes, what does that kid do with it when he gets there. We’re excited to go to work with these young men that have chosen our program.”
On Mississippi’s remaining scholarships: Our plan going into today was we signed six kids at mid-year, and two of those were able to count back because we undersigned last year’s. That left us with 18 today. I believe we’re around 15 or 16 today. So we’re saving a couple, whether they’re for transfers, late signees, or going to count (toward 2018).”
On the recruits’ decisions to take a risk with Ole Miss: “This class, again, I’m indebted to them. I think it’s great, because they chose what they knew was best for them 20 years down the road. Not looking at one season, but looking over the whole of their career and who they wanted to do it with and where they wanted to do it at, and they made a decision regardless of what others’ opinions were, they made a decision that was right for them.”
On the program’s next steps: “You’ve gotta stick together … Facing the truth, whatever it is. Facing whatever comes our way together, and believing in who you are, believing who your coaches are and getting up in the morning and taking great joy and pride in that. There’s a lot of issues around college football, and we certainly are having our share, and it’s gone on for a long time.
“During that time, it’s like a family going through difficulty … You find out who’s with you. You join arms, say, ‘We’ll face it and get through it.'”