- Mitch Sherman, ESPN Staff Writer
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On and off the grounds of Skyline High School, a powerhouse of prep talent deep inside the football hotbed of Dallas, Ty Barrett has grown comfortable in an unfamiliar ball cap
Texas and Texas A&M are giants nearby, the local favorites. TCU and SMU -- both of which have offered scholarships -- sit right there in the metroplex. The likes of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Arizona State want him, too.
But Barrett, a 6-foot-5, 308-pound junior and ESPN Watch List offensive tackle, is not joking.
"I'm very serious," he said. "Ole Miss is trying to change the SEC."
Some 800 miles east across the rugged landscape of the top league in college football, Watch List cornerback Nicholas Ruffin of Atlanta St. Pius X has held an offer from the University of Mississippi since his sophomore year. The Rebels were his first.
Still, he thought, Ole Miss? That is, until Hugh Freeze, who just finished his first year as coach in Oxford, Miss., began to construct a 2013 recruiting class that gained attention nationally, ranking No. 5 in RecruitingNation's class rankings behind Alabama, Florida, Ohio State and Notre Dame.
Ruffin knew plenty about the gem of the Rebels' class, top-ranked ESPN 150 recruit Robert Nkemdiche, a defensive end from Loganville (Ga.) Grayson.
So the junior prospect took a closer look, at Freeze in particular.
"I am impressed," Ruffin said. "He's a very confident man. Definitely seems like he knows what needs to be done. He seems like a man on a mission."
This scene is happening across the country. Ole Miss, the out-of-nowhere darling of signing day 2013, continues to ride the momentum of its recent recruiting success. And for an encore, Freeze and his staff plan to do it all over again.
The Rebels have offered more than 70 Class of 2014 Watch List prospects.
"Already, we've had four or five of the nation's top 100 kids on campus," Freeze said Monday, "and we hope to have more soon.
"We will continue to build on our message that something fresh and new can happen here. We've closed the gap, talentwise, but one class is not enough to do it in this league. We need to put two, three, four classes back-to-back that are similar."
Their plan is the same: Go after the top players nationally. Own the state of Mississippi and command a presence in regional population centers like Memphis, Tenn., and Atlanta.
Nkemdiche's brother Denzel came to Ole Miss as a linebacker two years ago. Laquon Treadwell, the nation's top receiver out of Crete (Ill.) Crete-Monee, signed with the school a year after his good friend and high school teammate Anthony Standifer picked the Rebels. Antonio Conner, the No. 2-rated safety out of Batesville (Miss.) South Panola, lives 20 miles from campus.
Defensive tackle Lavon Hooks, the No. 1 prospect in the ESPN Junior College 100, was placed at Northeast Mississippi Community College by the staff of former Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt.
"It was lightning in a bottle," Freeze said, "but we worked for that, too. Anthony Standifer was Laquon's best friend. We knew that. We're hopeful that because of [the 2013 class], we can move away from needing that natural in.
"We'll find out in this class if we still need it."
In the case of Ruffin, the cornerback from Atlanta with offers from Alabama, Florida State, Georgia and LSU, the answer is no -- he's ready to look hard at the Rebels despite the lack of a built-in connection.
"Obviously, they've put a plan in place," Ruffin said. "It makes me want to learn more."
Wesley McGriff, who left his job as Ole Miss co-defensive coordinator on Monday for a position with the New Orleans Saints, said the reception from kids today hardly resembles what the staff experienced a year ago.
"We've always been a great brand," McGriff said last week, "but when you talk to families now, they're a lot more receptive. It's not like they're just on the phone, listening. They're participating. It's not a monologue. It's a dialogue. They're sharing the excitement."
Freeze said the Rebels, moving forward, want to emphasize to prospects the recruiting triumphs.
For now, it's not necessary. The kids know. Three weeks ago, Ole Miss dominated TV coverage with its landing of Nkemdiche, Conner and top-rated offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil (Lake City, Fla./Columbia).
But spring practice and offseason training will soon clutter the minds of prospects.
"It's like anything else," McGriff said. "What have you done recently? So we want to make sure it's a constant conversation piece when we have the opportunity to talk to kids and their families.
"Don't allow the momentum to die."
Lest we forget, this kind of energy is hard to come by at Ole Miss, which won one SEC game in the two years before Freeze's arrival. It finished 7-6 last season.
The Rebels last won a conference crown in 1963, Bear Bryant's sixth year at Alabama.
And the top of the class rankings in recruiting is generally no place for new faces. Since ESPN began to rank classes in 2006, 11 schools have combined to hold nearly 80 percent of the top 10 positions.
Before Ole Miss, the only nontraditional power to break through like this was South Carolina in 2007 with its No. 4-ranked class.
Before 2010, South Carolina had never won more than 22 games in a three-year period. Over the past three seasons, it has won 31.
So is the same on tap in Oxford?
"That's the challenge we all face in coaching," said Lance Pogue, coach at powerful South Panola, which is sending Conner to Ole Miss as the latest in a long line of premier recruits from the school. "The next step is to start winning. Those coaches know that. They've won in recruiting. Now you've got to go out and start knocking off some of the top programs on the field."
Count Barrett, the big tackle from Dallas Skyline, among the believers. He has the kind of natural connection that Ole Miss likes, as the friend and former teammate of new signee DeVante Kincade.
Kincade, one of two quarterbacks in the 28-man class, committed in early July. He told all who would hear him last summer about the Rebels. On signing day, Kincade sat back and smiled.
"Man, it's true," Barrett said. "We all said, 'It's true, what DeVante's been saying.'"
Barrett is ready to listen. And he's not alone.