Commentary

'Meat Market': Already looking ahead

Originally Published: September 19, 2007
By Bruce Feldman

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from ESPN The Magazine senior writer Bruce Feldman's "Meat Market: Inside the Smash-Mouth World of College Football Recruiting." To purchase visit www.espnbooks.com.

The book, published by ESPN Books, goes deep inside the mysterious world of recruiting and into the war room of Ole Miss head coach Ed Orgeron. The excerpt picks up right after national signing day 2006.

February 1, 2006, was National Signing Day for the Recruiting Class of 2006, but the primary focus in the Ole Miss war room had long since shifted to the Recruiting Class of 2007, the one just 371 days away from becoming Ole Miss Rebels. The coaches were still waiting on a few faxes from recruits, but the Rebels had been boring in on the 2007 crop for months.

Meat  Market
ESPN BooksBruce Feldman's "Meat Market" is available through Amazon.com.
Ole Miss already had four commitments for next year's class, including middle linebacker Chris Strong, who Orgeron was saying would be the nation's top linebacker prospect in his class. Strong was a shockingly nimble 255-pounder. His uncle Eddie had been a star LB at Mississippi in the 1990s.

Just the day before, the Rebs had gotten a commitment from small-town tailback Robert Elliott, a long-striding glider who'd been unearthed by former Rebels assistant George DeLeone. "That's why you gotta go to every school in the state, no matter how small, because you never know," Orgeron told his staff after the good news about Elliott.

Orgeron, dressed in a red Ole Miss golf shirt and blue slacks, held court with rows of video tapes separated by position lined up in front of him. Normally the recruiting meetings would be more formal and organized, with the entire staff seated around the table. (The Rebels meet in the war room to go over recruiting at 8:00 a.m. every Wednesday during the entire year.) But since today was Signing Day, things were a bit more chaotic.

For most of the morning, there'd been between 6 and 10 assistants seated around the table watching the film. Almost always present were Dave Corrao and Grant Heard, the Rebels' two graduate assistants; Kent McLeod, the slender 28-year-old coordinator of football operations, who looked more like a golfer than a football man; and Barney Farrar, a former Clemson coach in his late 40s, who had just joined the staff as an assistant athletic director.

Also omnipresent was Hugh Freeze, a baby-faced, slightly graying, 36-year-old former high school coach from Memphis who was the Rebels' recruiting coordinator in 2005. Freeze, strictly a yes sir/no sir kind of guy, was Orgeron's right-hand man, and now his tight ends coach as well. Freeze also handled many of the peripheral details that kept Ole Miss football humming.

That very day, for example, he'd talked with the caterer about what kind of shrimp would be served at Friday's celebration dinner to thank everybody who'd helped land the Class of 2006. Freeze told Orgeron he could get a deal on popcorn shrimp for $17 a head. Or else it'd be $22 per if they opted for jumbo shrimp. Orgeron paused for a few heartbeats and then told him to go for the jumbos: "We're going to run a first-class program, and we're going to do it first-class."

Many of the evaluation tapes the Rebels would see that morning would be of defensive players or at least prospects they were targeting as defensive players. With the lights dimmed, a red introduction panel appeared on the big screen in front of the room: Golden Tate -- 5'11", 185, 4.4 -- Hendersonville, Tennessee.

Every tape was labeled with an intro like this, although about the only things Orgeron took for granted were the kid's name and the town he came from. As for height, weight, and time in the 40-yard dash, Orgeron would believe it when he or a member of his staff measured it. He had seen more than his share of times when high schools and the recruiting services overinflated a kid's dimensions or speed.

The Rebels saw Golden Tate as a cornerback. His tape, however, began with a series of dazzling offensive plays. He was juking would-be tacklers, leaving them staggering into each other. He was spinning. He was cutting. He was stopping and starting. His ability to regain top speed, going from first to fourth gear, was startling. That kind of quickness was critical for a defensive back who had to break on the football after a receiver had made his cut. Tate also was showing go-the-distance speed, running away from everyone on the field. A few other clips displayed that he had good hands and could make catches in traffic.

"We sure he's not a running back?" Orgeron asked.

"I talked to him," responded Freeze, the coach who recruits Tennessee, "and he says it doesn't matter."

Orgeron: "Only thing we gotta figure out is, what's our strategy? I know he says it doesn't matter, but somebody somewhere is going to sell this kid on something."

Freeze: "We're one of the first to offer him. But Tennessee's also offered him."

Orgeron: "You're not afraid of Tennessee, are you?"

Freeze: "No, sir, I am not."

The son of a former Mississippi high school football coach, Freeze is soft-spoken and calculating, coming across as a polar opposite of Orgeron. Freeze graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi with a degree in mathematics. He never played college football. While attending college, he had done missionary work throughout the country and in Russia and Australia. Now he said coaching was his "calling."

Freeze arrived at Ole Miss in 2005 as the former boy wonder coach from Memphis who had taken over the Briarcrest Christian School program at age 26 and led the Saints to two state championships in football and four more in girls' basketball. He brought with him former Briarcrest Christian star Michael Oher, whose improbable ride to the SEC from homelessness was the subject of Michael Lewis' best seller The Blind Side.

Orgeron said he was impressed not only by Freeze's moxie and coaching savvy but also by his strong connections in the Memphis area, always fertile soil for SEC football programs.

Two months before coaching his first game at Ole Miss, and with Freeze at his side, Orgeron vowed at a Rebels booster meeting at the Memphis Botanic Garden that he planned to "build a fence around Memphis" to lock up the city's top recruits. He even guaranteed it.

News of Orgeron's comments didn't too sit well with Memphis head coach Tommy West or with Tennessee's Phil Fulmer, both of whom took jabs at Orgeron's big talk. Locally, some newspaper columnists and radio talk-show hosts had fun with it too. But neither West nor Fulmer, whose Vols were coming off an embarrassing 5-6 season, were laughing when Signing Day rolled around in 2006 and the Rebels landed a half-dozen of the top players in the Memphis area.

As Freeze glanced back to the video screen to observe the next recruit, Orgeron turned to secondary coach Chris Rippon, who was seated on the other side of the table: "We may need to go in the JC ranks to get some corners."

Orgeron proceeded to click through three other defenders, none of whom kept his attention, before he came to Johnny Brown, a six-foot, 180-pounder with 4.59 speed, from Charleston, Mississippi. As the tape started, Corrao, sitting in the front of the room by the screen, started nodding. "This kid's a stud," he said confidently. "He's awesome."

Brown proceeded to make the assessment look good, running ball-carriers down on the tape's first four plays. Your first thought was that if this guy ran only a 4.59 forty, most of the other guys were probably three-tenths slower than the times they claimed.

Rippon: "He's got great balance. His change of direction is the best we've seen." Orgeron: "Good. Listen up, everybody. If you see something you like or something you don't like when we're watching, say it, loud and clear. We can all learn from each other."

(Later, after the staff had left the war room, Orgeron explained that he really wanted to hear his coaches' observations. He was still trying to get a read on their evaluation skills. He said there was no one right answer or way to evaluate, but he felt pretty confident in his own eye, and he was just as interested to get a read on theirs.)

"He's fast-twitch," added offensive coordinator Dan Werner. Fast-twitch refers to the muscle fibers connected with explosive movements. Long-distance runners are said to be more wired with slow-twitch fibers, while sprinters are charged with fast-twitch.

Orgeron: "Okay, we gotta get him in the boat early because everybody is gonna come after him."

Brown sounded like a realistic option. He'd been in Oxford the previous summer with his high school team for a 7-on-7 passing league tournament. He'd also been to Starkville, home of Mississippi State, for another 7-on-7 tournament, a passing-game simulation in which an offense runs plays with no linemen except for the snapper against an opponent's linebackers and defensive backs. Brown had actually been on the Rebels' radar for a year, but Orgeron knew that once other SEC schools scrutinized Brown's tape as closely as Ole Miss had, he would have to battle to keep the kid in-state.

Next up was a DB prospect from a small out-of-state school. The first five plays were all run away from the player's side of the field. Twice he only took a few steps before easing up after the play was over. Another clip showed him sprinting in to jump on a pile. He did look athletic. Later he darted in front of a receiver running an out pattern, but the quarterback threw the ball way behind the play. "He's 5'11" and ran a 4.62 at a combine," Orgeron read from some notes McLeod had given him.

"I'm not offering if he's 5'9", but if he's 5'11" we might take him."

"I saw him," one of the coaches chimed in. "He's probably 5'10" coming out of the locker room."

Orgeron's decision was to label the kid as a "prospect." They would try and get him to come to their summer camp for a closer look. If not, somebody else could go jump on him. The feeling was that he might not be any better than people already in the program. Or maybe they just needed more film showing him doing something. Next on the screen: Harrison Smith -- 6'3", 215, 4.5 -- Knoxville.

Smith was a virtual one-man team: LB, S, RB, and TE were listed under "Position." Indeed, the two-minute tape showed Smith doing everything from making open-field tackles to running guys down from the backside. During one five-clip sequence he looked like John Lynch, the Broncos' hard-hitting All-Pro safety. The next sequence, he looked like a white Eric Dickerson, gliding downfield past tacklers. He also made a bunch of highlight-worthy catches and runs-after-catch. The last shot was of Smith making a diving TD grab.

"That was with six seconds to go in the state playoffs," Freeze noted. Orgeron: "Everybody like him?"

"Yes!" the entire room responded in unison.

Without missing a beat, Freeze flipped open his cell and called an assistant in the Ole Miss recruiting office: "Get Coach Pemberton on the phone please."

"Hey Coach," Freeze said into the phone 30 seconds later. "We're having a great day down here. Coach O is ready to offer Big Harrison a scholarship."

Orgeron to Freeze, attempting to whisper: "Have him call my cell phone."

Freeze's voice lowered as he asked Coach Pemberton, "They already offered him?"

Freeze chatted just enough to satisfy the demands of politeness, said good bye, clicked off his phone, and turned to the room: "UT offered him last week."

And then, in a softer, more upbeat tone: "That's okay. They'll take for granted that they got him, and we'll out-recruit them."

Two feet away, Orgeron was smiling as he stared at the blank screen and offered a parting message to his staff: "Alright now, don't go out there trappin' and come back without no furs!"

It only took a few hours of watching Orgeron and his staff studying film to grasp one of the truisms of player evaluation: Everybody good must look like somebody else good. Coaches subconsciously use this comparison technique to reassure themselves, or perhaps to try and make objective something is that is inherently subjective. This is, after all, an industry completely in love with its tape measures and stop watches and percentages.

So that swift, hard-nosed white linebacker? He was Dan Morgan. Harrison Smith, the white defensive back was John Lynch. And so on, right down the list of potential blue-chippers. Not good enough that they looked like they could be good. They had to remind you of somebody else who you knew was good.

Sometimes the fit seemed natural and sometimes not. But almost always, if you looked closely enough, you'd find somebody who made it big to put next to a prospect you liked and make your guy look even better.

The trouble with this sort of cross-comparison is that coaches sometimes get a little gun-shy if they can't ID an antecedent for a prospect under review.

That had been Karlin Brown's bad luck. For the linebacker from Tallahassee's Lincoln High, the Rebels video screen flashed these vital stats: 5'8", 200. 4.4. The 5'8" part prompted a collective groan.

"Uh, 5-foot-8?" one of the assistants in the front of the room muttered in feigned disbelief. "Oh, jeez."

But only two plays into the film the mood of the room shifted from skeptical to intrigued. A squat, pit bull-like hitting machine, Brown played at a different speed than the other players in the film, and this was an elite level of high school football.

Brown's game was powered by leverage and explosiveness. His low center of gravity turned out to be an advantage, almost as much of one as his speed burst. He didn't appear to have just first-step quickness; it was more like five-step quickness. He was constantly in attack mode. Clip after clip showed Brown flying into the frame and blasting ball-carriers and blockers backwards.

During the early 1990s, Miami had a 5'8", 200-pound linebacker named Rohan "the Rat" Marley, famous for being the son of reggae legend Bob Marley. Rohan was a lights-out hitter too, but he didn't seem to be this fast.

Maybe Brown was the next Rohan Marley.

Orgeron: "I loved the Rat."

Matt Lubick, the recruiter who handles north Florida for the Rebels, announced to the room that Brown also ran the anchor leg on Lincoln's nationally ranked 4x100 relay team. So in essence, Lil' Karlin Brown with his short strides didn't just appear to be fast, he now was fast. Officially fast, as in legitimate speed. That's what comes with a track background: speed cred.

Orgeron: "Show of hands, who thinks we should not offer him?"

Half the hands in the room went up.

Orgeron: "Okay, who thinks we should offer him?"

This time, maybe three-fourths of the hands went up. Obviously, a few people from the first group had been on the cusp. The basic breakdown: The offensive coaches wanted the little linebacker, the defensive guys were still skeptical.

Orgeron: "I don't know. If he's listed at 5'8", that probably means he's more like 5'6."

Offensive line coach Art Kehoe: "How about we say, 'If you can ride the roller coaster in Tallahassee, we'll take you.' "

Orgeron: "Or if you're tall enough to try and walk under this table and you hit your head, we'll take you."

The verdict: Call the folks at Tallahassee Lincoln and tell them their little linebacker was going to be offered a scholarship by the Ole Miss Rebels.