OXFORD, Miss. » Alabama. Ohio State. Michigan. Florida. Notre Dame. Mississippi?
Ole Miss muscled in on the powerhouses that usually dominate national signing day, landing some of the most sought-after prospects in the country on college football’s annual first-Wednesday-in-February frenzy.
The Rebels, coming off a promising 7-6 season in their first season under coach Hugh Freeze, had the experts swooning by signing three of the bluest chips still on the board and building a well-rounded class otherwise.
The day started with defensive end Robert Nkemdiche from Loganville, Ga., rated the No. 1 recruit in the country by just about everyone who ranks them, deciding to join his brother, Denzel, in Oxford, Miss.
“I feel like it’s the right place for me,” Nkemdiche said after slipping on a red Ole Miss cap. “I feel like they can do special things and they’re on the rise. I feel like going to play with my brother, we can do something special.”
Nkemdiche originally committed to Clemson last year, then backed off that and narrowed his picks down to LSU, Florida and Mississippi — and the Rebels beat the big boys.
They weren’t done. Coaches in the Ole Miss war room were exchanging hugs and high-fives again a couple hours later when Laremy Tunsil, a top-rated offensive tackle from Lake City, Fla., picked the Rebels over Florida State and Georgia.
“Tunsil to Ole Miss I think was the biggest surprise of the whole (recruiting season),” said JC Shurburtt, national recruiting director for 247Sports.com.
And, as if the Ole Miss needed more good news, highly touted defensive back Antonio Conner from nearby Batesville, Miss., chose the Rebels over national champion Alabama.
The end result was a class good enough to even catch the attention of LeBron James.
“Ole Miss ain’t messing around today! Big time recruits coming in. SEC is crazy,” the NBA’s MVP posted on his Twitter account.
Crazy good. While the Rebels racked up, it’s important to remember they still have plenty of ground to gain on the rest of their conference competition.
Nick Saban reloaded the Crimson Tide with a class that Rivals.com ranked No. 1 in the country.
SEC powers Florida, LSU and Georgia pulled in typically impressive classes. SEC newcomer Texas A&M cracked the top 10 of several rankings. Even Vanderbilt, coming off a nine-win season, broke into the top 25.
It’s the cycle of life in the SEC, which has won seven straight BCS championships. Stock up on signing day and scoop up those crystal footballs at season’s end.
SLIPPING AWAY FROM USC
Signing day didn’t do much to soothe the scars left from a difficult season for Southern California.
NCAA sanctions limited the number of scholarships coach Lane Kiffin and the Trojans could hand out this year, and then as signing day approached USC had several players who had given verbal commitments change their minds.
The most notable defection on signing day was five-star defensive back Jalen Ramsey of Brentwood, Tenn., who flipped to Florida State. Defensive end Jason Hatcher from Louisville, Ky., bailed on USC and signed with Kentucky, and defensive end Torrodney Prevot from Houston not only reneged on his USC commitment, but he landed at Pac-12 rival Oregon.
“People expected (Prevot) to flip from USC, but they thought it would be to Texas A&M,” Shurburtt said.
USC’s class won’t be lacking blue chippers. Quarterback Max Browne from Washington is considered the next in a long line of topflight Trojans quarterbacks, and Kenny Bigelow from Maryland is rated among the best defensive linemen in the nation.
Kiffin will be banking on quality to make up for the lack of quantity, but that’s a precarious way to play a game as uncertain as recruiting.
IF MOMMA’S NOT HAPPY …
Alex Collins, a top running back prospect out of Plantation, Fla., announced on Monday night that he was going to Arkansas instead of Miami.
It was considered a huge victory for new Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema.
But on Wednesday morning, when it was time to make it official, Collins’ letter of intent didn’t come spinning through the fax machine in Fayettville, Ark.
There were some odd reports about Collins’ mother not being happy with her son’s decision to go so far from home.
College coaches aren’t allowed to talk about specific players before they sign, but Bielema did acknowledge during his signing day news conference that Arkansas’ class of 22 players could “grow by one.”
THE BIG TWO
Ohio State and Michigan received two thumbs up from experts on their signing day classes. They all had the Buckeyes and Wolverines around top five in the country.
After that, there was a drop off. Nebraska received solid grades and Penn State, despite NCAA sanctions that limited its class to 17 signees, held up pretty well.
“That’s a tribute to the job (Penn State coach) Bill O’Brien and the staff did,” Shurburtt said.
But signing day 2013 signaled that Urban Meyer’s Buckeyes and Brady Hokes’ Wolverines are primed to pull away from most of the Big Ten, and maybe — just maybe — give the league a team or two that can challenge those SEC teams for a national title.
BUILT TO LAST
Notre Dame followed up its best season in more than two decades with recruiting class that coach Brian Kelly hopes can keep the Fighting Irish contending for more national titles.
The class includes a famous name in Torii Hunter Jr., the son of the All-Star outfielder. Hunter Jr. is a top-notch receiver prospect, though he broke his leg during an All-Star game and it could be a while before he’s back on the football field.
Linebacker Jaylon Smith from Fort Wayne, Ind., is generally regarded as the jewel of a class that experts have ranked among the best in the country.
“I love agreeing with experts,” Kelly said.
BASEBALL OR FOOTBALL?
Oklahoma hopes it has found the next Sam Bradford in Cody Thomas, a pocket passer from Colleyville, Texas.
One small problem. Thomas is also a big-time baseball player who could draw interest in the major league draft this summer.
“We wouldn’t have pursued him if we didn’t feel there was a great chance he’d be playing football,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said recruiting classes “don’t always pan out. Of course, they always seem to pan out at Alabama.”
AP Sports Writer David Brandt in Oxford, Miss., and Associated Press Writer Tom Coyne in South Bend, Ind., contributed.