- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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A year removed from a historic recruiting haul, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze understands why some people aren't as caught up in his 2014 recruiting efforts. After all, the Rebels signed 10 ESPN 300 players, two five-star prospects and the No. 1 player/defensive end, offensive tackle and wide receiver in 2013.
What Freeze did in his first complete class at Ole Miss was nothing short of miraculous -- with three players ranked No. 1 at their positions in defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell -- when you consider the shape that program was in before he arrived in Oxford, Miss., in December 2011.
However, in a recruiting world obsessed with the glitz and glimmer from golden stars, some don't look at this year's Ole Miss class with the same excitement. That's fine with Freeze, because he sees a class (ranked No. 17 by ESPN's Recruiting Nation) that stands as a major building block for the Rebels.
"While it may not have those three- or four-stars that we had the natural tie-ins with or we were fortunate enough to get in Laremy's case, I do think from top to bottom it is quality," Freeze told ESPN.com earlier this week. "It definitely adds a lot of depth everywhere."
And when you're trying to find adequate balance across the board with your roster, quantity can sometimes outweigh quality. Not to say that this class doesn't have quality, considering the Rebels signed four ESPN 300 members, 15 four-stars by ESPN's Recruiting Nation and five ESPN Junior College 50 players. Freeze and his staff also kept the Rebels' 22 commits heading into signing day, brought in a few solid mid-year players and addressed major needs at receiver, offensive line, defensive line and linebacker.
And don't think that there aren't stars lurking in this class. Freeze said he expects to get early use out of second-ranked offensive guard Rod Taylor, No. 5 juco offensive tackle Fahn Cooper, ESPN 300 wide receiver Markell Pack and ESPN 300 safety C.J. Hampton, who is already on campus and could push for playing time at free safety.
While Freeze would have loved to have signed a star-heavy class, he didn't need to. He needed to plug holes on his roster with solid prospects, and for the most part he did. Freeze still believes he's lacking a big, physical tight end, and after losing six offensive linemen from last year's team, he says he'll will need one more recruiting cycle to get things together up front. But he got "quality depth" with "quality people" in this class.
"I do think that this added class gives us the ability to focus even harder on doing the little things right because we're creating competition at those positions now," Freeze said. "If a guy is winning off the field, you gotta good chance of him helping you on the field, if he's talented and you were right in your evaluation of him."
Now that signing day has passed, Freeze looks to the future, where he sees a team that returns a handful of the contributors he had from last season's eight-win crew. He has a host of youngsters, including Tunsil and Treadwell, who immediately stepped up as leaders and are guys who people intently listen to in the locker room.
For a class headlined by top overall prospect Robert Nkemdiche, it took a humble approach early, as Freeze said there was no sense of entitlement from guys or a "give-me" attitude that could have poisoned the program. They naturally became leaders because they knew the little things and listening would propel them, Freeze said.
"They worked for it," Freeze said. "No one could ever doubt that they [worked] hard to earn the spots that they got. As long as they keep that mentality, these expectations won't bother them because they have the talent to do that. Hopefully we can keep them grounded and continue to proceed just like we did when they first got here."
When Freeze thinks about blending this year's class with the 2013 group and the veterans already around, he sees a team that "should be competitive in every game and have a chance to win every game" this fall. He isn't proclaiming the Rebels as SEC champs, but he believes this team can challenge for it, more now than it could before.
However, Freeze knows that life in the SEC West means that having elite talent still might not be enough.
"The sad thing is that you can have a good class, and you're still fifth in the SEC West," he said. "It's not like the other guys are going away."
And it's not like Ole Miss is, either.
4dSam Khan and Greg Ostendorf