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How Ole Miss turned the recruiting world upside down

It has been exactly two weeks since Ole Miss finished with the best recruiting class in school history, and coach Hugh Freeze claimed he hasn’t really reflected on the grand accomplishment.

Everybody else is still talking about it, though.

Ole Miss turned the recruiting world upside down by signing four 5-stars, including Robert Nkemdiche and Laremy Tunsil, and by finishing with a consensus Top 5 team ranking.

Freeze didn’t sound like he was looking for more pats on the back during an interview with the AJC on Wednesday:

“Gosh, in this league, you don’t have time to reflect. We’ve already moved on to the 2014 kids. You just can’t sit around and reflect. As great as it was for Ole Miss, you look around and everybody in our conference did the same thing … they had the same type of classes. How much ground did you really make up? I guess fall will really tell that. But until you do that three or four years in a row, I don’t know if you’ve tremendously affected your program on a long-term basis.

“Our 2013 class is definitely a step in the right direction. But we certainly can’t rest on that, so we really haven’t had time to reflect on it. I feel like we’re already behind on 2014 when I read about all the teams that are getting after it. We’ve got to pick it up a little bit.”

Not everybody was happy that Ole Miss stole the show on signing day. The Rebels and their top recruiting targets were bombarded with negative comments and cheating accusations on various message boards and Social Media platforms. It got so bad that Freeze famously tweeted, “If you have facts about a violation, send it to compliance@olemiss.edu. If not, please do not slander these young men or insult their family.”

Two weeks post-signing day, the Ole Miss haters are still out there but Freeze is pretty much ignoring them. He’s thinking about 2014 kids.

“I try to not pay attention to it. I don’t have enough time to. You try to make a statement, which I did, and leave it at that. I want to run a program with great integrity, and I know our staff is doing it the right way. If people want to come up with some facts, they can certainly go to Ole Miss compliance or the NCAA.

“Man, there’s too much riding on this with families and stuff. Yeah, I want to know if there’s something going on. I don’t know if it’s calmed down or not out there. You would probably know better what people are saying.”

When the AJC asked Steve Spurrier asked what crossed his mind when an unknown coach (Freeze) from a relatively unknown school (Ole Miss) has a monster year in recruiting, he replied, “Yes, Ole Miss does an outstanding job. I heard one of the recruiting gurus say things really fell into place for them. The brother of the No. 1 prospect was already at Ole Miss, so that gave them a little inside position on getting him. With the other guys, they just did an outstanding recruiting job. I give Ole Miss credit. That’s fine with me. Good for them. I hope they do well.”

Robert Nkemdiche was the crown jewel of the Ole Miss class. His older brother (Denzel Nkemdiche) was a freshman All-SEC linebacker for the Rebels and his mother wanted the two sons to play on the same college football team. But – true story -- it took Ole Miss beating archrival Mississippi State in the “Egg Bowl” to secure young Robert. His mother, Beverly Nkemdiche, wanted Robert to play for a winning program or one that showed progress, and Ole Miss sat with a 5-5 record heading into the rivalry game.

“I feel like the turning point with Robert was us winning the Egg Bowl and the bowl game – the momentum we finished the season with,” Freeze said. “Mom was never bashful with her (comments). It was a combination of the momentum and limited success we had, and the success of his brother here which made the mom feel real comfortable that it could happen here, thus voicing her opinion of them wanting their family together. I think winning the Egg Bowl and bowl game was pretty huge for us with Robert.”

Nkemdiche attended the game, and charged the field with fans after it. He was caught on tape celebrating with his brother by ESPN.

While landing Nkemdiche was prolific, Ole Miss saved its biggest recruiting shocker for Laremy Tunsil, the 5-star offensive lineman from Lake City, Fla.

Tunsil was the “big fish that got away” that sent UGA into a downward spiral for the final stretch before signing day. The Bulldogs had recruited Tunsil for two years, and were so confident about their chances that they didn’t bother with a backup plan. Tunsil would've been the icing on the cake in an otherwise respectable top 10 class.

Ole Miss assistant Chris Kiffin, the brother of USC coach Lane Kiffin, was named Scout.com’s National Recruiter of the Year, largely due to his relentless effort in recruiting Tunsil. It’s the stuff of recruiting legends: Kiffin put on a clinic to show the importance of building relationships in recruiting, an effort which reportedly included more than 800 Facebook emails to Tunsil and around 400 to Tunsil’s girlfriend, according the Clarion Ledger’s Hugh Kellenberger.

Not only did Tunsil break the hearts of UGA’s coaches, he also bypassed the state’s traditional powerhouses of FSU, Miami and Florida.

What on Earth made Ole Miss think they even had a slimmer of a chance to go into Florida to steal its top prospect? “Our 12-month plan, that’s part it, picking certain targets that are national guys,” Freeze said. “Tunsil was one of the nation’s best, so we said let’s get after it, and see if we can get in on it. The longer that Kiffin worked on it, he just did a magical job recruiting him. I can’t tell you how hard he worked on that deal, making sure he built the best relationship with Miss Desiree (his mother), with Laremy, with Laremy’s brother, Laremy’s girlfriend, and everybody involved in Laremy’s life.

“If you ask Laremy now, he said it came down to who built the best relationship with him -- and the fact that people like Laquon Treadwell and, of course, Nkemdiche, Antonio Conner, Lavon Hooks and some of those guys coming with us. When I sat them down on their official visits, I told them ‘Hey you don’t have to do it by yourself.’ That certainly helped them all.”

Nkemdiche also indirectly played a critical role in Tunsil signing with Ole Miss. Freeze sold both superstar recruits on the idea of pushing each other to be the best at practices.

“No question, we talked about that frequently,” Freeze said. “We talked about the fact that all these NFL folks are going to want to see film of him practicing. And with Laremy going up against one of the best in the nation every single day in practice, it’s only going to help him prepare for the next level. There was also the opportunity for (Tunsil) to play very, very early, and play in a lot of games in a great league. I think all of that factored into it.”

After Tunsil finished his official visit to Ole Miss two weeks before signing day, word spread quickly in recruiting circles that he was going to sign with Rebels over UGA. However, Freeze said he knew that was probably going to happen even earlier than that.

“The official visit definitely sealed the deal,” Freeze said. “People talk about how he was headed (elsewhere). He told me probably a month before signing day that we were his leader. I thought he was kidding with me at the time. I said, ‘Come on, man.’ He said ‘Coach, I’m serious.’ So I felt really good after his visit, but my home visit that following Thursday night was when I felt great about it.”

There are a lot of people at Ole Miss feeling great these days. The next question is this: Where does Ole Miss go from here after aiming for the moon in 2013 and reaching it?

“We try to repeat, that’s what we’re going to try to do,” Freeze said. “I’ve said to everyone, this year we were fortunate to have some natural tie-ins that helped us. If we didn’t have the (tie-ins), would we have landed those guys? I don’t know but I still think our class was pretty good without them. I think the four-stars we signed like Austin Golson, Ryan Buchanan, Devante Kincade, and Jordan Wilkins … those are good kids and good players.

“We’re going to try to repeat it, but I don’t think it’s necessary that you have to have the exact ranking every single year that we were fortunate enough to get this year. But we need to be in the discussion for those type of kids for sure, land a few of them and put together three or four classes of top 20 classes. I think you’re onto something then.”

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