The most challenging part of recruiting nowadays is the de-recruitment process once you get the players onto your campus.
That’s why Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze was braced for the worst this past summer when members of the Rebels’ top 5 signing class began filtering onto campus.
“You know how the social media feeds the egos of these kids,” Freeze said.
In this case, the hype was only escalated because it’s not every day that Ole Miss goes out and signs such a coveted group of freshmen.
Likewise, it’s not every day that that crop of freshmen turns out to be even better than advertised.
The Rebels, unbeaten and ranked No. 21, head into their showdown Saturday at No. 1 Alabama with true freshmen sprinkled throughout their starting lineup.
As pleased as Freeze has been with how well they’ve played, he’s been even more impressed with their maturity, their approach and the way they’ve blended in with the rest of the team.
“I never in my wildest dreams, when you bring in so many of these kids who were highly rated, thought it would go this smoothly,” Freeze said. “You think you’re going to have to spend most of your time getting them grounded, but I have not had a single issue with any of them.
“They are the most humble, hungry, grounded kids. They’re just really, solid good kids, and all they want to know is, ‘Coach, what can I do better? How can I work harder? That’s all of them, from Robert Nkemdiche all the way down to the other freshmen. We’re just very blessed that that’s the case, and then to get the performance we’re getting on the field from them is pretty remarkable.”
The 6-5, 294-pound Nkemdiche, the consensus No. 1 prospect in the country last year, has started every game at defensive end for the Rebels. He’s tied for the team lead with four tackles for loss and has been every bit the defensive force he was projected to be coming out of high school.
“I really believed he’d be everything that he’s shown,” said Freeze of Nkemdiche.
The same goes for Laremy Tunsil, who’s played in every game and started at left tackle two weeks ago against Texas. Go back and watch the tape of that game, and Tunsil hardly looks like a true freshman with the way he held his own against Texas defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat, who showed up on a number of preseason All-America teams.
Tony Conner has been a perfect fit at the Rebels’ hybrid “Huskie” position and has started each of the last two games. Laquon Treadwell had nine catches in the first game against Vanderbilt and is sixth in the SEC with 5.3 catches per game.
"I went back and forth on Treadwell," Freeze said. "I knew he was going to be a special talent, and then you get into fall camp and the grind got to him a little bit, and you’re thinking, ‘We may need to ease him into this thing a little bit,’ and then those lights come on at Vandy, and you find out that this guy is a baller. He’s exactly what you thought he was."
So, it's really not a surprise to anyone that Nkemdiche, Tunsil, Connor and Treadwell have been so good so early. They were all ranked among the top three players nationally at their respective positions.
But Evan Engram has been a pleasant surprise, and that’s been huge because the Rebels were hurting at tight end coming into the season. He’s caught touchdown passes in each of his last two games and is averaging 58.3 receiving yards per game, which leads all SEC freshmen.
“He’s already caught more balls by a freshman tight end in the history of the school, and we’ve only played three games,” Freeze said.
The other freshman who’s playing even more than Freeze had expected this early is Austin Golson, who’s playing about 50 percent of the snaps at offensive guard.
“They all make mistakes and go to the wrong gap and do some things that are typical freshman things,” Freeze said. “But when a chance comes their way and they’re in the right spots and they’re asked to make a play, they’ve been making them most of the time.”
And they’re not trying to do too much, either, nor have they come in with any sense of entitlement.
“They’re the hardest workers I’ve ever seen as freshmen,” Freeze said. “We started coaching them on that as soon as they signed with us, and they came in right away and earned tremendous respect from some key people on the team with how hard they worked and their sense of doing anything they could to make the team better. They’re kind of letting the game come to them.
“Certainly, there are times when you have older players who are envious because they don’t want their playing time to be affected, but they know these guys have come in and earned the right to play, and it didn’t take anybody long to see that they were going to help our team.”