McCready: Evaluating Ole Miss' signing day class requires nuance
OXFORD -- Few days elicit more overreactions than National Signing Day.
To no one’s surprise, Wednesday delivered.
On the flip side, the Rebels lost Jacarious Clayton to Mississippi State and couldn’t close on Percy Lewis, who also signed with the Bulldogs. Trevion Williams is also headed to Starkville, and Jaheim Oatis stuck with Alabama despite a furious run by the Rebels to land his considerable talents. Four-star defensive end Derrick Moore, who visited Oxford last week, signed with Michigan.
As of Wednesday early evening, Ole Miss was ranked No. 31 nationally by Rivals.com. How accurate are those rankings? I don’t know. That’s a beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder thing, but they’re likely at least a decent gauge of how a program performed in relation to its competition.
Among Southeastern Conference programs — and including Oklahoma and Texas — Ole Miss lost ground. Alabama, Georgia, Texas A&M and Texas are ranked Nos. 1-4. Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Oklahoma and Auburn were ranked Now. 10-15. Missouri was ranked No. 19 by late afternoon Wednesday. South Carolina was No. 21. LSU was No. 27.
It should serve as the annual reminder that this league is an absolute beast, an unforgiving monster that will never let you relax. Hell, Vanderbilt had a strong cycle by the Commodores’ standards, finishing the day at No. 33.
No matter what the rankings do or don’t say, however, this class isn’t a disaster. It’s not representative of failure. The people who are saying that are far too dramatic, far too emotional. Frankly, that smacks of an agenda.
But — and this is where the Pollyannas out there are going to get upset — it’s not as good of a class as it should’ve been and it’s up to Lane Kiffin and his entire staff to figure out why that is.
First, some caveats:
This was always going be a class that relied heavily on the transfer portal, and those results aren’t known yet. Ole Miss is looking for at least one quarterback, a running back, multiple receivers, at least one offensive lineman, at least one defensive lineman and possibly some secondary help in the transfer portal. Just Wednesday, Ole Miss landed a commitment from former Auburn defensive back Ladarius Tennison, who picked the Rebels over Missouri. The odds are overwhelming the Rebels' transfer portal haul won't stop there.
In other words, there are a lot of unknown results, far too many to make any sweeping judgments about the impact of a signing class.
“We anticipate a lot of movement there,” Kiffin said. “That’s why this is a small class comparable to the number of scholarships we have available. We were very picky. We had high standards. We didn’t reach.”
Due to Covid and the possibility of players returning for an extra year, this was always going to be a bit of a chaotic, unpredictable recruiting cycle. That has held true. In a year when a ton of roster turnover was necessary, filling roster holes was always a case of firing at erratically moving targets.
Still, this class should’ve been better. Kiffin has had nothing but momentum since taking over at Ole Miss in December 2019. He’s made Ole Miss football exciting and relevant. The Rebels opened the 2021 calendar year by winning the Outback Bowl over Indiana, had Covid regulations lifted in time to have a regular recruiting cycle and then won 10 games for the first time in the program’s history, culminating with a birth in the Jan. 1 Allstate Sugar Bowl against Baylor.
Ole Miss had Chamber of Commerce days for games against LSU and Texas A&M, providing recruits with a glimpse of Oxford at its very best. Ole Miss won both of those games, and the aftermath was indeed a #PartyInTheSip.
“When you win, better players come,” Kiffin said.
Still, while Wednesday was solid and absolutely included some future impact players, it wasn’t exactly overwhelming. And it left holes. Ole Miss wanted a quarterback in this class. It failed to sign one. It wanted to beef up its defensive line. It signed Zxavian Harris but no one else.
Part of it, certainly, is Name Image and Likeness (NIL). That might even be a large part of it. This week, during two media opportunities, Kiffin has appeared frustrated — if not downright peeved — at what’s happening with NIL.
“You’re in free agency,” Kiffin said. “There are no contracts, so I really hope for these kids that they’re getting all the money they’re being promised at all these schools when they get there, because there’s a lot of money being promised. I hope for them that they get it. Because these guys get promised all this money to come places but they don’t have a contract, which in free agency, obviously, you would in the NFL, where you get paid what you’re told you’re going to get paid.”
Part of it, per a variety of sources, was just personality. Kiffin’s laid-back approach, which is so popular with his players and works so well with older players in the transfer portal, might work against him with high schoolers, especially those raised in the South. Kiffin can be aloof. He can also be short and to the point, and in a competitive world where first impressions really matter and opportunities are limited, that might work against him. Throw in omnipresent rumors that he’s potentially leaving for a new job, the loss of an offensive coordinator late in the process and the slim margin for error in the vicious SEC, and a few recruiting losses can cost a good class the chance to be great.
And it’s possible Kiffin doesn’t care about any of that. It’s possible that he views the portal as a bigger part of the roster-building apparatus than others. Further, it’s possible Kiffin is cutting edge in that regard. Time will tell.
“To me, the portal allows you more to do what we do, which is not reach (and) not have to just add numbers to add numbers,” Kiffin said. “Because now there are guys available and there will be more guys available after bowl games and there are going to be more guys available after spring ball, because they’re not going to like how it went, just like we saw a year ago. It used to be you just had grad transfers with one year left. Now there are guys in there with four years of eligibility. To me, you can replace (high school misses), even if it’s not in the first year, but a year from now get a guy with three years of eligibility and it would have been the same as this class.”
In other words, Wednesday might have come and gone, but recruiting never ends. That’s always been the saying, but in this new era of transfer portals and NIL, it’s never been more true.