AUSTIN, Texas -- Their paths don’t cross much on the recruiting trail, and what they’re selling isn’t all that similar.
Texas offers tradition and the 16-year track record Mack Brown has built, the national titles he’s won and played for, the titles he expects to play for again soon. Ole Miss has traditions, too, but it’s now a younger program led by second-year coach Hugh Freeze that’s trying to rise up in the SEC.
Old School vs. New School? Not quite, but not far off in the eyes of some recruits.
The matchup this Saturday of No. 25 Ole Miss and Texas is no doubt an intriguing one when viewed through the lens of recruiting. Both schools are among the nation’s best on that front.
Texas has had top 10-ranked recruiting classes in seven of the past eight years. Being a power in those rankings is nothing new for the Longhorns. But in Freeze’s first year, Ole Miss stunned the recruiting world by signing the No. 5 class in the country, highlighted by No. 1 overall recruit Robert Nkemdiche, five-star receiver Laquon Treadwell and several other four-stars who will take the field Saturday night.
“He’s done a great job,” Texas coach Mack Brown said of Freeze. “I can’t remember what they did after our game, but they finished very strong, had the best recruiting year in the country and now they’ve got a great start. It’s great timing for us to bring a really good SEC team in here and challenge us before we get started in conference play. I’m excited about the challenge.”
Ole Miss went 7-6, but Freeze still capitalized on the annual phenomenon of coaches having first-year recruiting success. The relentless efforts he and his assistants make in recruiting are drawing attention.
There was also good fortune. Nkemdiche’s brother played for Ole Miss. Treadwell’s best friend did, too. Freeze proudly said on signing day that those ins were “God’s favor to us,” though the popular (and unproven) assumption among skeptics was that the Rebels had cheated.
Jamal Adams was watching. The ESPN 300 safety from Lewisville (Texas) Hebron called that Ole Miss class “the best yet” and is convinced the Rebels are on the rise.
“They have the potential to go far in the next few years,” Adams said.
Adams has both Ole Miss and Texas in his top six and will take official visits to Oxford next month and Texas in November. He said most schools recruit him the same, but there is one thing Freeze’s staff does that caught him by surprise.
“They stay on you, giving you Bible verses every morning,” Adams said. “It’s cool at times.”
Ole Miss has offered more than 25 recruits from the state of Texas in this class and signed three Texans last year. Landing a big fish like Adams would do wonders for Freeze’s goal of making his program a national recruiting power.
"Recruiting in Texas has been big to us,” Freeze said Monday. “We've certainly picked up some momentum there. Going over there and doing well would provide dividends.”
Adams is as critical a target as any for Texas right now, a kid Mack Brown and his coaching staff has been recruiting for years. The approach they’ve taken -- not just with Adams, but all targets -- has undergone impressive changes in the past six months.
The hiring of Patrick Suddes in March to lead a new player personnel department has been a boon for the Longhorns’ recruiting efforts. They’re working hard to shed that “old school” label and modernize how Texas evaluates and pursues prospects.
Three-star Longview (Texas) defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson is keeping a close eye on both schools. He recently decommitted from TCU and has Texas and Ole Miss in his new top six. The moment he received an offer from the Rebels was a special one.
“I was like, dang. Nkemdiche, the No. 1 defensive end in the nation, is going to Ole Miss. And then when I got the offer, I was pumped up about it,” Henderson said. “I was like, ‘Man, I can go play with the No. 1 player in the nation.’ Not everybody can say that.”
He was raised by diehard Texas fans with Longhorn emblems on all their cars. Mom and dad love Texas, and his best friend Dorian Leonard has already committed to UT. Despite the recent turmoil in Austin following the firing of defensive coordinator Manny Diaz, Henderson is still planning to visit Texas next weekend. He has a feeling both schools can be atop the college football world someday soon.
“Texas is very similar to Ole Miss in their recruiting style,” Henderson said. “Either you want to go to Texas or you don’t. They want to know that from the start, if you have any interest in them. If you do, they want to talk to you.”
Like the Twitter-savvy Freeze, Suddes has helped refresh Texas’ recruiting methods on social media. On the first day they were permitted, he and Mack Brown were up late into the night sending Twitter and Facebook messages to 2015 recruits on Sept. 1.
They’ve held new recruiting events and ramped up their efforts with that 2015 class to the point that they’re in the lead for most of the state’s best. The point isn’t to put together one great class. It’s to stay ahead and work on two or three at a time, advancing your message and brand in as many ways as possible.
Freeze undoubtedly subscribes to that philosophy. He admitted on signing day it takes two or three elite classes to build a title contender. He proved in Year 1 he’ll compete with anyone.
Now that includes Texas. The Rebels and Longhorns will square off Saturday night at DKR, but that won’t be the last time they battle.