Inside Ole Miss' Historic 2013 Recruiting Class

Barrett SalleeSEC Football Lead WriterFebruary 6, 2013

Ole Miss was the talk of the town on national signing day, closing its already stellar recruiting class strong with the signings of defensive end and No. 1 overall prospect Robert Nkemdiche, the nation's No. 4 overall prospect and No. 1 offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil and 5-star safety Tony Conner.

The signing-day surge from the Rebels have vaulted them into the Top 10 of the 247Sports composite team rankings.

Not too shabby for a team with a second-year head coach in Hugh Freeze who is coming off of a 7-6 season.

But how did it get to this point?

It all started in 2011, when then-Rebel head coach Houston Nutt was able to ink a 5'11", 200-pound 3-star safety named Denzel Nkemdiche, Robert Nkemdiche's brother. The elder Nkemdiche moved down to play linebacker prior to his redshirt freshman season in 2012, and he burst onto the SEC scene with a team-high 82 tackles and 13 tackles for loss en route to being named to the postseason SEC All-Freshman team.

That certainly raised the eyebrows for the younger Nkemdiche, who got the ball rolling on Ole Miss' huge national signing day with his announcement at 7:30 a.m. ET on Wednesday morning.

Getting the commitment of Robert Nkemdiche is a program-defining moment for the Freeze regime. The 6'4", 285-pound defensive end has the speed to be one of the top pass-rushers in the SEC from the moment he steps on the field, and he has the size to be a force against the run as a true freshman.

Throw him in the mix with talented defensive ends C.J. Johnson and Channing Ward, who are already with the program, and all of a sudden Ole Miss has one of the most fearsome pass rushes in the conference.

But Nkemdiche makes much more of an impact than on the depth chart alone. Players—particularly prospects in the same recruiting class—are the best recruiters in the country. The relationships that are developed during the process at camps and on official visits create a snowball effect throughout the year.

Ole Miss benefited from that during this cycle.

The Rebels became the "flavor of the season" in 2012-13, which allowed Freeze to get his foot in the door with Tunsil and Conner, both of whom signed with the Rebels over various other teams, including Nick Saban's Alabama Crimson Tide.

With Tunsil, the Rebels were able to elbow their way into the mix late with Alabama and Georgia. The 6'6", 295-pounder from Lake City, Fla., made an official visit to Oxford the weekend of January 25—the same weekend that Robert Nkemdiche was in town.

Winning any battle for a 5-star is big, but doing it over one of the game's ultimate closers in Saban makes it even sweeter for Freeze and his staff.

Locking down Conner was huge for Ole Miss, but not too much of a shock considering South Panola High School in Batesville, Miss., has sent five players to Oxford over the last four recruiting seasons.

But Alabama and Auburn were both in the mix, and Ole Miss stood strong. 

Star value is important, but can this class live up to the hype?

In the rough-and-tumble SEC West, the Rebels certainly have their work cut out for them, considering five of the last six national title-winning programs reside in their own division.

But the Rebels have the right ingredients to jump up and become contenders. The 7-6 record from last season may look average on paper, but it was much better than where most people—myself included—had them pegged in August.

They took LSU down to the wire in a 41-35 loss in Baton Rouge and threw away a 10-point fourth-quarter lead at home versus Texas A&M in a 30-27 loss.

It's not the Xs and the Os; it's the Jimmys and the Joes. Ole Miss has both now.

The offense improved by 143 yards per game and 15.4 points per game in Freeze's first year at the helm in 2012, and the defense improved by 43.5 yards per game.

That was without this stellar recruiting class. With the three 5-star signees mentioned above, along with 5-star wide receiver Laquon Treadwell and junior college 5-star defensive tackle Lavon Hooks also in the mix, the Rebels should be even more dangerous moving forward.

While this is a program-defining class for Freeze's staff, his next challenge is sustaining it, according to former Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley.

"One signing class does not make a program," Dooley said on ESPNU. "You have to do it over and over again."

Dooley is absolutely right. But for the time being, Ole Miss has announced itself as a contender in the SEC moving forward. With powers Alabama and LSU, upstart Texas A&M and sleeping giant Auburn all within the division, somebody has to lose.

But judging from the players who signed on the dotted line with Ole Miss on Wednesday, the Rebels don't plan on doing much of that in the near future.

Freeze's motto is "win the day." He certainly did that on national signing day.