January 28, 2009

Nutt never slows down on the recruiting trail

Here comes Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt. He's smiling and walking fast. Nutt does everything fast talks fast, thinks fast, smiles fast. But everything about him is even more accelerated at this moment as he strides into an executive terminal at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport following a home visit with a recruit.

"It went great," Nutt says. "That kid has a terrific family, the mom, the dad. I think we have a chance to get him."

That's all Nutt can ask for at this moment: a chance. Recruiting is difficult, and the hunt for talent is hitting its apex. Nutt knows now is when championship rosters are built. He can draw up Xs and Os on a grease board as well as any coach, but they sure as heck work a lot better if you have star athletes executing them.

That's why Nutt hopscotched the nation on this Thursday in mid-January, whispering sweet nothings in the ears of recruits about how great it would be to be an Ole Miss Rebel. Nutt has 20 commitments but wants to put a bow around his 2009 recruiting class by luring some blue-chippers late in the process. It's all about continuing to build on the momentum of his 9-4 debut season at Ole Miss, which ended with a rousing victory over an 11-1 Texas Tech team in the Cotton Bowl.

For now, Nutt exhales. It's 9:47 p.m., and he's tired and wants to go home. His day began just after 8 a.m. in Oxford, Miss. Nutt knows this sweet-talking serenade will continue. National Signing Day is Feb. 4, almost two weeks from this day. He can't let up. He has to sell, sell, sell.

"I have been to Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and all over our state [in recent days]," Nutt says. "We have visited most of the guys who have committed, but we are trying to finish this thing with a bang. We have some big-time players we still are trying to land.

"If we get them like this quarterback we just visited it will really help us. We probably will sign between 26-30 players and place a few in junior colleges. We are looking good. But we can't stop."

Nutt and Ole Miss offensive line coach Mike Markuson, secondary coach Kim Dameron and offensive coordinator Kent Austin board the Ole Miss university jet that whisked them here. This day began in Sulphur, La., continued to LaFayette, Ga., and concluded in Baltimore. It was a break-neck ride through one day in college football recruiting. Come along.

To remain in compliance with NCAA rules, Ole Miss could not allow Rivals.com to use the names of the student-athletes the Rebels were recruiting in this story. Also in accordance with NCAA recruiting compliance, Ole Miss coaches could not allow Rivals.com to be with the coaches when they made the home visits that were a part of this story.
'Let's have some fun today'

Check out the Cessna Citation parked outside the Rayner Terminal at the University-Oxford Airport. It's a gleaming jet built for businessmen. Houston Nutt's business on this day is recruiting.

Dressed in a blue sweater vest with "Ole Miss" embroidered over his heart, starch-white dress shirt, black slacks with a razor pleat and shiny shoes, Nutt is a man in motion.

"How ya doing?" Nutt asks the two pilots.

He's a naturally caffeinated coach who percolates a positive vibe everywhere he goes.

"Let's have some fun today. You all ready to go? Come on!"

Nutt is energized by his new gig at Ole Miss following a 10-year run at Arkansas that ended with more drama than any soap opera writer ever could have cooked up. But that was then and this is now. Nutt has no rear-view mirror. He wants to keep rehabbing Ole Miss, and he's off to a terrific start. Expectations will be off the charts this fall, which means Nutt and his staff must feed the beast by signing a killer recruiting class.

"We should be pretty good on defense next year," says Nutt, who thinks it's easier to recruit at Ole Miss than it was at Arkansas because of its more SEC-central location. "But we need offensive linemen, defensive linemen, cornerbacks and some receivers.

"We inherited some good players, but there are holes in the roster that will start to show up because many of the players signed by the previous staff haven't remained in school here."

Nutt is joined by Dameron and Markuson, who buckle in for the one-hour flight to Lake Charles, La. From there, it's a short drive to their destination: Sulphur High School in Sulphur, La. The jet screams down the runway. Nutt reaches into his carry-on bag and pulls out a notebook that includes profiles of recruits. Nutt and his staffers would love to add a linebacker from Sulphur High they are going to visit. Dameron has been the point man on this prospect's recruitment.

"This is a good kid," Dameron says. "He doesn't have a mother or father. He lives with his 21-year-old brother, his brother's girlfriend and their baby in a trailer across from the high school. A counselor at the high school has taken him under her wing, really mentoring him and looking out for him. She's a great lady."

The jet descends and lands. It mid-January, but it's warm almost hot in Lake Charles. The coaches quickly load into a BMW rental and drive past the refineries and casinos that dot the short drive along the interstate to Sulphur High, home of the Golden Tornados. Dameron drives, Nutt rides shotgun and Markuson hunkers down in the back. Markuson is on his BlackBerry, talking to an offensive line recruit from Chatham (Va.) Hargrave Military Academy he wants.

"Hey, we are going to get you to 'the league,' " Markuson says. "You know that. We are the best school to develop you."

In the front seat, Nutt frets about the upcoming visit. He knows it'll be difficult to woo this recruit away from LSU. TCU also is making a hard push. But there are few better recruiters than Nutt.

Nutt's down-home charm puts you at ease. He could be your next-door neighbor, and there's no doubt he would loan you his hedge clippers. Nutt pulls people into conversations with a warm hand on their shoulder and a firm-but-friendly handshake. And when you talk to him, you are the sole object in Nutt's universe. It's all about building trust, which is the foundation of relationships, which is the bedrock of recruiting.

Nutt, Dameron and Markuson enter the high school and immediately find the head coach and the counselor, who are expecting the Ole Miss coaches. Next, the recruit is summoned. Soon, everyone is smiling and laughing. Nutt is good at this.

"I think it went well," Nutt says on the drive back to the airport. "We don't usually talk about football on these visits. We talk about life.

"We wanted to visit this kid today because he's coming to our campus tomorrow for an official visit. We know LSU is pinching him and we think this will ensure that he will visit us. If he does that, we have a chance to get him."

Showing some love and attention

The Ole Miss coaches nosh on a boxed lunch of catfish some 30,000 feet above Alabama. The next stop: Chattanooga, Tenn., then a drive to north Georgia. Nutt wipes his mouth with a napkin, leans forward and begins telling a story about a big victory over Idaho back when he was coach at Boise State. No one tells a story better than Houston Nutt.

"I asked the AD if he would let us travel a day early to the game," Nutt says. "It was a long bus ride and we were supposed to get in late on Friday night and play at noon on Saturday. I didn't like that. I wanted to leave on Thursday, but it was going to mean an extra night in a hotel. The AD didn't like that.

We inherited some good players, but there are holes in the roster that will start to show up because many of the players signed by the previous staff haven't remained in school here.
Houston Nutt
"But the AD really wanted to win this game. It was a rival. He was obsessed with beating Idaho. He asked me if I could guarantee a win if we left early. I said ' I guarantee it !' He let us leave early. The game went into overtime Man, I was worried. But we pulled it out!"

Nutt claps his hands, stomps a foot, laughs and falls back into his seat. Markuson and Dameron howl, even though they have heard the story before.

Upon landing, Nutt is met at the Chattanooga airport by Austin, who already has been in the area recruiting. He now is part of an entourage that piles into an SUV and heads south to LaFayette, Ga., to visit a big offensive lineman who had committed to Ole Miss the previous week.

Markuson checks his text messages. There's one from Ole Miss offensive tackle Michael Oher, a potential top 10 pick in the NFL draft who is at the Senior Bowl auditioning for scouts. The message: "I'm dominating down here. I'm bigger, stronger than most everyone. I want to thank you for coming to Ole Miss."

Nutt waves Markuson over to get in the SUV. It takes about an hour to reach the recruit's house. The coaches already have sold this prospect on Ole Miss, so the visit is about showing the recruit some love and attention. He isn't a blue-chipper, but this is the type of lineman Markuson routinely turned into a star during his stint at Arkansas with Nutt.

"He's a coach's son," Markuson says. "His mom is a teacher. He comes from a great family. He's big, strong, smart just what you want. We think he'll be a good one for us at center. We need linemen. We don't have much depth up front."

The man with a plan

The Cessna is hurtling northeast toward Baltimore. Nutt is on his way to woo a raw-but-promising quarterback who's built like Terrelle Pryor. But why would a kid from Maryland want to go to Oxford, Miss.?

"He is in a military family and spent some of his childhood in Mississippi and still has family there," Nutt says.

Nutt reaches into a coat pocket and pulls out some hand lotion, lathering it on. Next, Nutt pulls out some floss and begins working over his teeth. His mind drifts toward the coming weekend, which will be a big one for recruits coming to Ole Miss to visit.

"We have 16 coming in," he says. "I'll get them over to my house at some point. They like it. I have a big lake where they can fish."

Maybe a few of the recruits will commit, but Nutt won't press any of them for a decision. It's not his style. But if a recruit does commit, Nutt expects him to honor his word.

"If they take more visits after committing to us," Nutt says, "I tell him that we will bring in other players at their position to visit."

Nutt gazes out a window at the bright lights of Baltimore that color the dark sky. Nutt starts quizzing Austin about the quarterback they will visit.

"What's the plan here, Kent?" Nutt asks.

"The kid is pretty quiet," says Austin, a former star Ole Miss quarterback from the 1980s who is the point man on the prospect's recruiting. "The mom is pretty quiet, too. But the dad will talk. He knows his football. His dad is big on trust. He wants to know who he can trust.

"I told him we have a plan for him. The kid and his dad are all for coming in and redshirting. They believe he isn't ready to play right away. So any school that tells him that he will play him right away turns off the father and kid. I have told him we can play him as a redshirt freshman in 'Wildcat' formations, getting him ready for when [current Ole Miss quarterback Jevan] Snead is gone."

It takes less than a half-hour to drive to the recruit's house on a military base. When the Ole Miss coaches get there, the quarterback isn't around he's at work.

"How about that?" says Nutt, clutching a coffee mug the recruit's father gave him as a gift during the visit. "We had to go see him at his job stocking shelves at a 7-Eleven on base. That says a lot about him. How many big-time recruits would even have a job?"

Nutt smiles and shakes his head. He wants this quarterback even more now. But Ole Miss will have to beat Kansas State to get him.

"It won't be easy," says Nutt, clutching a plastic bag with a Subway sandwich in it for the flight back to Oxford. "But nothing in recruiting ever is easy.

"Come on. Let's go home, fellas, and get some sleep. We have more recruiting to do tomorrow."

Tom Dienhart is the national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.


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