• 72°

Ole Miss pushes through NCAA probe to fill needs in signing class

It’s normal for coaches to gush about their recruiting classes.

Considering the circumstances, Hugh Freeze had more reasons than usual to have the warm and fuzzies about Ole Miss’ latest batch of newcomers.

“It was a very difficult time,” Freeze said. “A lot of rollercoaster rides in the recruiting process this year, probably more than others even though it’s always part of it. But with our other issues, it made it very, very difficult.

“I’m indebted to them.”

Ole Miss signed 22 prospects in its 2017 class Wednesday, though the group lacked the star power of Freeze’s previous classes with the cloud of the long-running NCAA investigation hovering over the program.

The Rebels had one of the nation’s top 15 classes each of the previous four years but finished outside the top 25 of every major recruiting service’s team rankings. Yet Freeze said his team got what it needed from a class that’s smaller than usual because of scholarship reductions as part of the penalties the school self-imposed last year.

“I think we addressed a lot of needs that we have,” Freeze said.

The priority, Freeze said, was addressing a defense that needs fixing after Ole Miss finished among the nation’s worst in several categories. Five linebacker signees show the help the Rebels need at the position, though Freeze said early enrollee Breon Dixon could play safety.

The Rebels signed reinforcements at safety in C.J. Miller, a former USC commit, A.J. Harris and Clinton’s Kam White, who could make an early impact with his rangy 6-foot-2 frame.

Morton four-star athlete D.D. Bowie, the Rebels’ highest-ranked signee, stuck with his commitment after a late push from Mississippi State. He’ll use his 6-1, 187-pound frame at cornerback and may also get a look at returning kicks, Freeze said.

“D.D., we think, is as athletic as any kid that’s come out of this state since I’ve been here really,” Freeze added.

Offensively, junior college signee Jordan Ta’amu and Virginia prepster Alex Faniel will provide depth behind Shea Patterson and Jason Pellerin at quarterback. Ole Miss needed a running back after missing out on Clinton five-star Cam Akers and extended a late offer to land Isaiah Woullard, who set the state’s all-time rushing record at Hattiesburg’s Presbyterian Christian School.

“If he were playing in a different league, I think he’s a no-brainer,” Freeze said. “I’ve got a sneaking suspiscion he’s going to be like an Evan Engram type that you look at after three years and you’re like, ‘Wow, we almost messed that up.’”

There were the annual misses. Starkville four-star linebacker Willie Gay stayed home at Mississippi State, four-star running back Cordarrian Richardson signed with Central Florida and junior college defensive tackle commit Larrell Murchison flipped to N.C. State.

But Freeze expressed gratitude for the ones who did sign after having to listen to what he called “extreme rhetoric” from others about what additional fallout may come from the NCAA probe.

“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,” Freeze said.