Feb. 5, 2014
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OXFORD, Miss. — After assembling a consensus top-10 signing class a year ago, the Ole Miss football program hauled in a top-15 class for the second straight year Wednesday. Headlining this year’s class are 14 high school and junior college All-Americans and the top four high school players in the state of Mississippi.
“I’m thrilled with our class, like every coach would stand and say today,” Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said. “Our coaches did a phenomenal job in building relationships with the prospects and their families and significant others that can stand the onslaught of the recruiting process. It’s definitely a grind and a challenge. The last couple of weeks are always extremely anxious moments.
The major recruiting service rankings currently list Ole Miss at No. 14 (247Sports.com), No. 18 (Scout.com and ESPN.com), and No. 19 (Rivals.com). It marks the first time in school history to record back-to-back consensus top-20 classes dating back to the first recruiting rankings in 2002.
Among the 14 All-Americans are four U.S. Army-All America selections in defensive back C.J. Hampton, offensive lineman Christian Morris, wide receiver Markell Pack and offensive guard Jordan Sims. There were also three Under Armour All-America selections in defensive lineman Garrald McDowell, offensive lineman Rod Taylor and kicker Gary Wunderlich.
The 26-player class includes 18 players rated 4 stars or higher by at least one recruiting service, including five consensus four-star prospects, as well as offensive lineman Rod Taylor, who is listed as a 5-star prospect by 247Sports.com and a 4-star prospect by the other three major recruiting services.
“I hope we can redshirt more kids than we were able to the last two years,” Freeze said. “That’s a sign we’re headed in right direction and getting kids more maturity before they have to hit the field. Last year, we had some top-heavy guys that got a lot of attention. We were also able to evaluate correctly guys like Evan Engram and Derrick Jones. This class, we might be better top to bottom.”
The Rebels pulled in prospects from nine different states, including Mississippi (12), Georgia (three), Alabama (two), Florida (two), North Carolina (two), Tennessee (two), Illinois (one), Louisiana (one) and Texas (one).
By the position, the Rebels welcome to the program six offensive linemen, five defensive linemen, three athletes, three linebackers, three defensive backs, two wide receivers, one quarterback, one running back, one tight end and one kicker.
“We’re close,” said Freeze of the roster’s depth. “I consider it two classes because the first year I had three weeks before signing day. After three full recruiting years, we should have our roster to where you look at it and feel this is an SEC roster. We’re definitely a lot closer.”
The jewel of this year’s class is Taylor, the consensus top-rated prospect in Mississippi and listed No. 1 on the Clarion-Ledger Targeted 22 list. He is also listed as a 5-star prospect, the No. 1 offensive guard and the No. 25 overall player in the country by 247Sports.com
“Rod Taylor is as good as I have ever seen in drill tape,” Freeze said. “You may watch a game tape and you may say he doesn’t look as good as this guy, but you go watch a drill tape. I don’t know if I have ever seen a guy any better than his feet in those things. That means a lot more to me.”
Led by Taylor, the Rebels hauled in the top four high school players in Mississippi, according to 247Sports.com. Joining him are Hampton, Pack and defensive lineman Breeland Speaks. Each of those three players is also a consensus four-star recruit, as well as defensive back Tee Shepard.
“We set out a goal to capture our state and the top guys in it, first, and then identify positions of need,” Freeze said. “We were able to accomplish both of those things in this class. It added significant depth to our young football team, particularly at certain spots.”
Ole Miss continues to build depth and helped fill immediate needs by signing five junior college players, as well as adding offensive lineman Christian Morris, a mid-year transfer.
Among the junior college players are Akeem Judd, the nation’s No. 1 junior college running back by Rivals.com, 247Sports.com and ESPN.com.
“We think the junior college route solved some immediate needs, like at middle linebacker with Christian Russell, and a big, physical tailback with Akeem Judd,” Freeze said. “We decided we needed another corner about a week ago and we were able to get a great talent like Tee Shepard to join us. At offensive tackle, we added Fahn Cooper. Those are positions that were of great need for us.”
The nation’s No. 1 JUCO cornerback by 247Sports.com and the No. 2 JUCO cornerback by ESPN.com, Shepard was one of the few signing day surprises for Ole Miss, flipping his commitment from Mississippi State to Ole Miss. Otherwise, it was a day with no bad surprises for Freeze and the Rebels.
“You come into it with your guys who have committed to you and you don’t have any bad surprises on that day,” Freeze said. “We were able to get through today without any, and it went pretty smoothly. We lost a few battles with some really good schools that we were in it at the end with some really good players.
“Our focus is totally on the players that we get because those are the Rebels and those are the ones who chose to come with us, and our concentration will be on the many, many great players. We got our team faster and deeper, and I can’t wait to get them here and get them on the field and get to practicing.”