How Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss football went defense-first, put together top 20 recruiting class
OXFORD — Lane Kiffin had a simple message for recruits this cycle: Just watch Ole Miss play.
Ole Miss signed 22 players on the first day of the early signing period Wednesday. The Rebels' signing class ranks No. 18 in the nation according to the 247Sports composite rankings. That's the highest an Ole Miss signing class has ranked since the Rebels signed the nation's No. 5 class in 2016.
That 2016 class leaned into Ole Miss' high-flying offensive identity with uber-talented offensive signees like quarterback Shea Patterson, offensive tackle Greg Little and wide receivers A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf.
This year's class goes the other way. Ole Miss ranks No. 3 in the FBS in total offense this season and dead last in total defense. Which is why this signing class is made up of 12 defensive players compared to nine offensive players and one specialist.
"I just tell them 'Watch the game,'" Kiffin said about defensive recruits. "Whenever you are performing not well on a side of the ball, you don't like that but there's a recruiting side to it too. Just like if you're a really bad team on both sides period. Kids will go ahead and say 'I can go there and play quicker.' Luckily that's just the case on defense right now here. I think these guys saw that."
Ole Miss signed seven defensive backs and five defensive linemen Wednesday. This included four-star safeties Tysheem Johnson and Dink Jackson and four-star cornerback Markevious Brown, who committed to and signed with the Rebels on Wednesday.
Defensive tackles Jamond Gordon and Isaiah Iton are both three-stars, but they rank as the No. 1 and No. 3 junior college defensive tackles in the class in the 247Sports composite rankings.
Throw in the fact that Ole Miss flipped defensive back M.J. Daniels from his Mississippi State commitment to sign with the Rebels Wednesday, and it becomes evident how successful the Rebels' push toward rebuilding the defense was.
As Kiffin pointed out, 11 of the defensive signees will be mid-year enrollees. That means a significant majority of the Rebels' newest defenders will be allowed to begin practicing with the team in January, and in some rare cases depending on high school graduation schedules, as early as next week when bowl practices begin.
The push was for defensive depth, but the result still yielded some standouts on offense. The Rebels' three highest-rated signees are wide receiver Bralon Brown, quarterback Luke Altmyer and tight end Hudson Wolfe, all of whom are ranked as top 250 players in the class.
Brown, Wolfe, in-state wide receiver Brandon Buckhaulter and Texas product JJ Henry are four new pass catchers for quarterback Matt Corral to throw to next season with favorite targets Elijah Moore and Kenny Yeboah likely to be gone next season. Offensive tackles Jayden Williams, Micah Pettus and Cedric Nicely are all tall, long-armed blockers who can provide rotational depth on the line.
Then there's Altmyer. Kiffin said fans shouldn't expect Altmyer to push Corral for starting reps next season. But he did describe the Starkville quarterback as a "special talent." And more than that, Kiffin credited Altmyer, who committed to Ole Miss on Dec. 4, as the catalyst who helped finalize this Ole Miss class.
"People say 'What was the turn in recruiting?'" Kiffin asked rhetorically. "I think one was on-field performance, us playing well and showing our players having fun. And I think the second thing was Luke turning. It kind of became a cool thing to do, and he helped recruit these guys, too."
Kiffin said he doesn't have an exact number of recruits he wants or plans to take in the February signing period. The plan is to use the remaining scholarships available on February signees, graduate transfers and conventional transfers, especially with the NCAA's one-time transfer rule expected to take effect before the next season begins.
Even as Ole Miss looks to finish off this class with one or two more big names to shoot up the recruiting rankings even higher, Kiffin said he's aware of the challenges that come from having this full of a recruiting class on Dec. 16.
"I'm telling you, going into these numbers, these schools aren't going to have many spots," Kiffin said. "So this one-time transfer thing is great for kids and everybody wants it, but it's not going to be that great for kids in the end because there are going to be a lot of kids that think they're going somewhere and then there's no spots because we're capped. These kids are going to think they're going somewhere but then there aren't going to be any places to go."
Ole Miss Class of 2021 signees
- 4-star WR Bralon Brown (Ft. Lauderdale, Florida)
- 4-star QB Luke Altmyer (Starkville, Mississippi)
- 4-star TE Hudson Wolfe (Savannah, Tennessee)
- 4-star S Tysheem Johnson (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
- 4-star CB Markevious Brown (Bradenton, Florida)
- 4-star S Dink Jackson (Melbourne, Florida)
- 3-star DB M.J. Daniels (Lucedale, Mississippi)
- 3-star DB Kyndrich Breedlove (Nashville, Tennessee)
- 3-star WR JJ Henry (McKinney, Texas)
- 3-star DT Jamond Gordon (East Mississippi Community College)
- 3-star DT Isaiah Iton (Hutchinson Community College)
- 3-star WR Brandon Buckhaulter (Flowood, Mississippi)
- 3-star OT Jayden Williams (Conway, Arkansas)
- 3-star DE Demarcus Smith (Birmingham, Alabama)
- 3-star CB Demarko Williams (Atlanta, Georgia)
- 3-star DE Jibran Hawkins (Lawrenceville, Georgia)
- 3-star OT Cedric Nicely (Gainesville, Georgia)
- 3-star DT Taleeq Robbins (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)
- 3-star S Elijah Sabbatini (Biloxi, Mississippi)
- 3-star OT Micah Pettus (Madison, Alabama)
- 3-star K Caden Costa (Mandeville, Louisiana)
Contact Nick Suss at 601-408-2674 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @nicksuss on Twitter.