OXFORD - The first batch of prospects of the Lane Kiffin era are signed in red and blue as Ole Miss football announced the first half of its 2020 signing class on Wednesday.
Kiffin and his staff hit the ground running since taking over the program just 11 days ago and secured signatures from 12 prospects for the early signing period, including five recruits with a 4-star rating. All in all, the new Rebel head coach was happy with those who signed for the early period and looks forward to finishing the class strong in February.
"This early signing period to me is kind of like halftime," Kiffin said. "It's strange having a press conference instead of the end of the game at halftime. The guys we did sign today, it's a little defense-heavy. When we came in, we didn't know the roster great. We'll always try to sign the best players regardless of position, but especially in our first year as we look at things."
The first letter of intent of the day was a big one as 6-foot-7 offensive lineman Tobias Braun selected the Rebels over a bevy of high-profile offers, including Florida State, Arkansas, Missouri, Michigan and Oregon. A native of Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, Braun has played high school football stateside over the past two seasons, and his connections to some of Kiffin's new staffers, as well as the work done by the existing recruiting staff, helped pull him to Oxford.
"We're kind of scrambling here one week to go, but this was somebody two coaches on our staff knew from before from Florida State and UCF. I had never talked to him, never met him, but he had a great weekend here," Kiffin said. "What I learned and what everyone says is that if you get the kids here, get them on campus here, even when school is out, they really enjoy it and you end up getting a lot of them. A lot of credit to the staff here that was in place, not just the coaching staff but around the building. They knew a lot more than we did for us few new guys. Those guys and girls really carried us through."
Braun was joined on the offensive front by the top lineman in Mississippi, Heritage Academy 4-star Eli Acker. Acker comes to Ole Miss as the MAIS 5A Player of the Year and the No. 8 prospect out of the Magnolia State. Acker grew up a Rebel fan and stuck with his commitment through the coaching change.
"Most of these kids, especially in the south, they've visited here 10 times, been to a million games and junior days and all that stuff," Kiffin said. "They already knew about Ole Miss and a number of them wanted to come here. I didn't really talk much about that. I talked more about what we're planning on doing, whether it's scheme or your position and how we coach that position or how we've coached it before and just kind of combine the two."
Elsewhere on the offensive side of the ball, Ole Miss added two strong prospects to the backfield in 4-star running back Kentrel Bullock and 3-star quarterback Kade Renfro. Bullock joins a strong RB room as the No. 7 prospect out of the state of Mississippi and the No. 23 recruit in the nation at his position. Renfro, meanwhile, flew a bit under the radar early in his recruitment but ultimately chose the Rebels over offers from Florida State and UCF.
"Kade is a really good player who has a big upside," Kiffin said. "At that position especially, just like all of them, we started from scratch and thought that he had a really big upside, someone who hasn't played a ton of football and is still maturing from a growth standpoint, growing into his body. But he's very competitive and has really good touch on the ball. I think he has a bright future."
The Rebels also brought in a top-flight pass catcher in 4-star tight end/wide receiver DaMarcus Thomas. The Saraland, Alabama, native totaled 739 receiving yards and seven touchdowns as he led his squad to a 10-1 record as a senior. He chose Ole Miss over Tennessee and others.
Ole Miss grabbed a number of commitments on the defensive side, highlighted by a strong crop of linebackers. Jakivuan Brown, a 4-star prospect out of Horn Lake, Mississippi, joined the fold along with fellow in-state 4-star Austin Keys, Alabama 3-star Cedric Johnson and NJCAA All-American Daylen Gill out of Louisville, Mississippi, and Jones College.
Half of the Rebels' 12-man early signing class hails from Mississippi. Kiffin commented on in-state recruiting, saying that he and his staff will identify and target the best players available, regardless of their location.
"We're going to sign the best players to win games," Kiffin said. "Now if it comes down to where they're equal, we're going to choose the in-state player. But we're not going to sit here and say we're going to sign all Mississippi kids. National programs that win for a long period of time, they recruit nationally. We're going to recruit all over the place and find players. If it's even, we'll take local kids."
The Rebels also improved in the secondary with the signing of Derek Bermudez. The 3-star prospect out of Jacksonville, Florida, chose Ole Miss among an impressive offer sheet that included SEC foes LSU, Georgia, Florida, Auburn and Arkansas, as well as Oklahoma, Oregon, West Virginia , Pittsburgh, Miami, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech.
The final signee of the day will also provide depth in the secondary early. Lakevias Daniel, a high school and junior college teammate of Gill, was the last Rebel to publicly announce on Wednesday, choosing Ole Miss over Louisville, West Virginia, Indiana and others.
Ole Miss pulled one defensive lineman out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. A 3-star prospect out of Parkview Baptist, DeSanto Rollins chose the Rebels over Tennessee, Oregon, Colorado, Virginia and others.
Kiffin and his staff aren't done adding to the secondary or defensive front, identifying defensive back, defensive line and wide receiver as the top positions of need in the late signing period.
"We signed some good players today that we're excited about," Kiffin said. "We've only been here a week. Just like our staff, we said we were going to work fast, but we're also going to work smart. When we start back up again here, we'd obviously like to have our staff in place and be at full strength then go finish out the second half. Just like you can't win the game in the first or second quarter, you can't win recruiting yet. We'll have a lot of work to do. Talked to a lot of kids over the last two days about waiting and pushing back to February and finish really strong."