April 26, 2011

Rebels land talented defensive duo

Ole Miss had to hold its collective breath until the last minute before landing a commitment _ and the subsequent signature _ from Batesville (South Panola), Miss., four-star wide receiver Nick Brassell in February.

The Rebels landed verbal commitments from two of Brassell's former prep teammates on Tuesday. This time, apparently, no antacid will be needed.

South Panola defensive end/linebacker Issac Gross and outside linebacker Temario Strong gave Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt a pleasant surprise on Tuesday when they verbally committed to sign with the Rebels in February.

Gross, a 6-foot-3, 245-pounder, chose Ole Miss over offers from Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi State, Southern Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas and others. Strong, a 6-1, 217-pounder, is the nephew of former Ole Miss linebacker Eddie Strong and the cousin of former Ole Miss defensive tackle Chris Strong.

"They've both started 30 games here and they're 29-1 with two state championships and a national championship," South Panola coach Lance Pogue said. "They know how to win."

Both players said Tuesday the desire to win at the college level together, particularly at Ole Miss, led to their decisions to commit now.

"I've been thinking about it," Gross said. "I have always loved Ole Miss. I visited some other schools and I liked them and I have a lot of respect for the coaches. But I love Mississippi and I want to play close to home and I've always loved Ole Miss."

"I just always wanted to go to Ole Miss," Strong said. "I just decided it was time to do it. This is what I always wanted to do."

Strong's future at the collegiate level is almost certainly as an outside linebacker. He's hoping to add another 10-15 pounds to his frame over the next season. Gross, meanwhile, has seen his body go in the opposite direction. Gross began his high school career as a defensive tackle, but he's lost weight and increased his speed over the past two seasons, moving to the edge in the process. Gross said Ole Miss coaches have told him he will either play defensive end or outside linebacker in Oxford.

"I know I'll play off the edge," said Gross, who had 75 tackles and 10 quarterback sacks as a junior.

The Rebels' coaching staff, Gross said, was "as shocked (by his sudden commitment) as I was when they first offered me."

Both players said Tuesday they are hoping they can bring the Tigers' winning tradition with them to Oxford when they make the 25-mile move a year from now.

"When I was growing up, all I knew was winning," Gross said. "You have to realize when you lose, you have to go back, watch the film and try to get better. You have to lean on each other and come together to change the program. I don't want to accept losses."

Strong, who had 69 tackles and 14.5 sacks for the Tigers as a junior, echoed Gross' comments, adding that he wants to start forming those kinds of bonds in Oxford.

"I'm through with recruiting," Strong said. "I couldn't see myself anywhere else."

The duo join Memphis (MUS), Tenn., offensive guard Ben Still on Ole Miss' 2012 commitment list. Still chose the Rebels late last week.

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