National Signing Day musings:

• Biggest signing day recruiting news in Mississippi: Starkville’s Willie Gay, a remarkable athlete, decided to stay home and play at Mississippi State, breaking hearts at Ole Miss, Michigan and LSU. If Cam Akers was Mississippi’s No. 1 prospect, then Gay was No. 1.01. He will play right away and make a difference.

• Second biggest news: Versatile D.D. Bowie, Morton’s quarterback/wide receiver/running back/cornerback, chose Ole Miss over State, Alabama and LSU and said he wants to play corner in college. As valuable as great cover cornerbacks are, the guess here is Ole Miss wishes Bowie would grow into a linebacker, where Ole Miss needs the most help.

• We interrupt signing day football news with this distressing report: News broke Wednesday that pork belly reserves are at a 50-year low. That means bacon prices, already high, are going up. And you thought losing a four-star recruit to an arch-rival was bad news …

• More meat-related news: Illinois State signed an offensive lineman named Kobe Buffalomeat, and if there has ever been a better name for an offensive lineman these ears have not heard it.

• Heart-warming news: Presbyterian Christian running back Isaiah Woullard held out and prayed for an offer from Ole Miss, where his father, the Rev. Reg Woullard, played football. He got it on Tuesday night and signed on Wednesday morning, a few days after his family’s Hattiesbug home was ravaged by a tornado.

• Back to recruits with five-star names (and Willie Gay isn’t bad): USM signed an athlete named Bubba Fludd and another named T’Rod Daniels and another named Wydelle Flott. Ole Miss signed a defensive lineman named Sincere Davis. (Got to be careful Rebel fans. Don’t tell coaches to put in Sincere.) JSU signed a running back named Quitten Brown. (Let’s hope he never does.) Mississippi State signed players named Jaquavious (Collins) and Montravious (Richardson), who together weigh 590 pounds. But the largest player MSU signed (6-7, 355), was just a plain old Josh (Cooper).

• We never know for sure until four or five years later, but it appears Mississippi State won the recruiting sweepstakes among Magnolia State teams. The gems of the class: Gay, Columbus running back Kylin Hill, defensive end Aaron Odom of Jackson Callaway and quarterback Keytaon Thompson (out of Landy-Walker in New Orleans). Observers I trust who have seen Thompson just rave about him.

• Clearly, Ole Miss was hurt by the seemingly forever ongoing NCAA investigation. We’ll never know for certain, but that’s why I believe Akers is at Florida State and not in Oxford. I also believe that’s partially why six of The Clarion-Ledger’s annual Dandy Dozen chose to leave the State. Still, Ole Miss got some gems, including Bowie who could play any number of positions (but not linebacker). Woullard, a tireless worker with underrated talent, will be a productive player. Early enrollees Breon Dixon of Loganville, Ga., and Branden Williams of Northeast CC are the best hopes for early help at linebacker.

• Few, if any, will out-work Southern Miss coach Jay Hopson in recruiting. This was his first chance at a full class and he delivered. USM went heavily on offensive linemen and defensive backs and landed both quality and quantity. Offensive lineman Paul Gainer of Gautier, corner Emanuel Dabney of Callaway, linebacker Sentrell Latham of Meridian and scatback Darius Maberry of Clinton are homegrown Mississippi products who could prove early difference makers.

• Safe to say we will never get back to the days when Jackson State was signing guys like Walter Payton, Robert Brazile and Ricky Young in a single class, but the Tigers probably had their best signing day in decades. Tony Hughes got the JSU job primarily because of his reputation as one of the most dogged recruiters in Mississippi football history. JSU signed six early enrollees and 28 signing day recruits. That’s 34 total. Obviously, some are counting against last year and some must be moving forward to next year. (And some will end up at a junior college.) At any rate, help, lots of it, is on the way. The gems: quarterbacks Jeff Toney (6-6 and 230) from Niceville, Fla., and Tavis Williams of Harrison Central; wide receiver D.J. Clayton of Kemper County; and safety Kendrick Paul of Livonia, La. And while the Tigers didn’t sign another Walter Payton, they did sign safety Elvia Payton (a cousin of Walter and Eddie Payton) out of New Orleans. I think they should at least try him at running back. Don’t you?

Rick Cleveland is Mississippi Today’s sports columnist. Read his previous columns and his Sports Daily blog. Reach Rick at

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.