The reputation of Ole Miss football has certainly changed since coach Hugh Freeze arrived in Oxford, Miss., following the 2011 season.
In a little more than a year, the Rebels went from a program coming off a 2-10 season to signing a unanimous top-10 recruiting class in February 2013.
Everyone knows the class: defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil, wide receiver Laquon Treadwell and safety Tony Conner. It was the four-headed monster, and it changed Ole Miss football. All four players were in the top 35 of 247 sports’ composite ranking, and three were in the top 15. Nkemdiche was the No. 1 defensive lineman, Tunsil was the No. 1 offensive lineman and Treadwell was the No. 1 wide receiver.
“When you’re able to sign kids that are that highly sought after and then to play at a high level for the three years (they have) been here, there’s no question that gives us some validity in homes of recruits that are similar in nature,” Freeze said. “I don’t know that I can ever overstate the gratitude I have or the impact (from) people like (Nkemdiche, Tunsil, Treadwell and Conner) choosing to believe that we can do something new here. Make this a new normal of recruiting at a high level.”
Three of the four will likely play in their last game in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Saturday when No. 22 Ole Miss faces No. 15 LSU.
Nkemdiche and Tunsil have been projected as top-five NFL draft picks, and Treadwell has been projected to go as high as the top 10. Unless something strange happens, no one anticipates those three will return for their senior seasons. Conner has indicated he’s coming back next year, according to Freeze.
Those three players have totaled a 24-12 record at Ole Miss. Barring an Alabama loss to Auburn in the regular-season finale, Ole MIss will have no chance to win an SEC title, and the national title hopes went away with a shocking loss to Memphis.
But look at who those guys have helped beat. Freeze defeated every team from the SEC West in his first 32 games. Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen still hasn’t done it in 87 games.
That 2013 class changed Ole Miss football.
“We’ve had three full recruiting classes, and there’s no question in my mind it takes you four, five, six years,” Freeze said. “That doesn’t mean you can’t beat people. We obviously have. You’ve got to recruit at a high level like that for a consistent period of time in order to match the depth charts of these other teams. Then being able to have kids like (them) certainly validates in the minds of other recruits that it can be done.”
Ole Miss is on the cusp of blowing that 2013 class out of the water with what it is expected to sign this February. The Rebels, who currently have the No. 8 class in the nation, are predicted to make a run a top-five finish.
Nkemdiche, Tunsil and Treadwell didn’t turn Ole Miss into a championship team, but that doesn’t mean they failed. They turned a program around that had no hope. They gave fans championship expectations and changed the way people across the country think about Ole Miss.
If Freeze and Ole Miss continue to trend upward and become a constant force in the challenging SEC West, you can look back at National Signing Day 2013 and know when it all turned around.