By JOEL COLEMAN
Just down the road from Mississippi State’s Davis Wade Stadium on Wednesday’s National Signing Day, Starkville High defensive lineman Kobe Jones put on a maroon and white visor to signify he was officially a Bulldog. Only moments later, SHS wide receiver A.J. Brown donned the red and blue colors of MSU’s instate rival, Ole Miss. Just like that, a pair of longtime teammates became rivals.
Meanwhile north of town, West Point’s Scott Lashley was already the newest member of the Alabama offensive line having submitted his paperwork to the Crimson Tide earlier in the morning.
Down in Macon just before lunch, the state’s top player, defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons, announced he would be joining Jones on the defensive front of the Bulldogs.
Here were four players coveted by Southeastern Conference programs. All four sat either in or just outside of the Golden Triangle area. Proximity says that Mississippi State was the clear favorite for all four. Yet in the sleepless, tireless world of college football recruiting, proximity only gets you so far.
“It’s tough to compete with everyone in the SEC,” Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen said. “You are talking about the best conference in all of college football. You have some great teams and some great programs.”
Mullen batted .500 on the four local targets. The first to jump onboard for MSU was Jones. Oddly enough, the top competition for Jones’ services wasn’t the national-title-winning Tide or the persistent Rebels, but the Miami Hurricanes. Jones took an official visit to Miami and liked what he saw, but the chance to play for his hometown team was just too tough to pass up.
“(Miami has) pretty girls and palm trees,” Jones said. “I had hometown support here.”
Mullen welcomed Jones into the Bulldog fold with open arms, praising Jones’ character and effort.
“He always does things the right way at the right time,” Mullen said of Jones. “Every time we had him at camp, he’s always going to be one of the hardest working guys, if not the hardest working guy out there every single day in every single drill. We are looking for work ethic and looking for high character and he fits that for us.”
Jones’ announcement that he was coming to Mississippi State was sandwiched between a pair of guys’ choices to leave the area. Lashley, once a MSU commit, followed through with his Tuesday declaration that he would sign with Alabama. Then Brown, despite growing up around maroon and white his whole life, chose the chants of Hotty Toddy over the ringing of cowbells or the ‘Roll Tide’ yells.
According to Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze, Brown’s mind had been made up for weeks.
“(Brown) actually told me (he was coming to Ole Miss) two weeks ago after my home visit,” Freeze said during his signing day press conference. “He called me on my way home and let me know and I said that only me and him would talk about it. I didn’t talk about it to other people and it just got stronger and stronger and the official visit confirmed what we already felt I think.”
Following Brown’s announcement, he told reporters that he didn’t feel Mullen and the Mississippi State staff recruited him enough for him to stick around Starkville. Mullen said that wasn’t the case before sending well-wishes to the wideout.
“We recruited (Brown) as hard as we recruited anybody else that’s out there,” Mullen said. “We wish him the best. Our program is not for everybody.”
While a receiver with Brown’s ability would have been a welcome addition for the Bulldogs, it wasn’t long before the blow of losing out was softened by Simmons. The five-star Noxubee High standout had been keeping his signing day intentions to himself, but most considered him to be either heading to Oxford with Brown or to Tuscaloosa with Lashley. As it turned out, like with Jones, Simmons chose to continue his career in his own backyard. It was a choice Mullen believes that Simmons won’t regret making.
“(Simmons) has been No. 1 on our list just because of the talent that he has out there on the field,” Mullen said. “I’ve known him for three years now and if you look at what he does in the classroom, you look at what he does in his community, if you look at the effort that he gives in everything that he does, he is a first-class young man. I see him potentially being the next Fletcher Cox or Kaleb Eulls or Pernell McPhee and when you start getting mentioned with those guys, you are really up there. He has that work ethic and really just that attitude that he’s a very special player.”
Simmons’ declaration essentially put the lid on what was one of most active, high-profile recruiting seasons ever in the Starkville area. Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Alabama all found success in and around the Golden Triangle and will reap those benefits in the years to come.
In the days ahead, fans will continue to debate which players made the right decision and if any of the local four should have went elsewhere. There’s something Mullen hopes critics keep in mind though as they analyze what transpired.
“I think what gets overlooked is there is a lot of pressure put on these young men from a lot of different directions,” Mullen said. “Everybody has an angle to work and they have to deal with this pressure. You’re talking about 17-year-olds that have to deal with all kinds of pressures. I tell all of them I don’t envy them in having to make decisions in those situations where they are at. I think that is something often overlooked when you look at the recruiting process and the pressures the recruits and their families are under.”