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Why Ole Miss TE Evan Engram put his NFL dream on hold

OXFORD, Miss. -- When Evan Engram was younger, he used to draw pictures of himself running the football and write out "Sports Illustrated" at the top.

So as he looked at this year’s Ole Miss spring guide for the first time and saw a picture of himself, along with teammates Chad Kelly and Tony Conner, he was honored. No, it wasn’t Sports Illustrated. But he was still on the cover, and that alone was something to be proud of.

"I love representing this school and being a leader," Engram said. 'Being able to be on a cover like this, any magazine or even a story with [ESPN], it’s an honor. It’s a blessing. Just being able to represent this great university and this great team, it’s pretty cool."

Before Engram got to Ole Miss, donning the cover of a magazine or even a spring guide seemed pretty far-fetched. In high school, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound tight end spent the bulk of his sophomore and junior seasons blocking for teammate Kenyan Drake, a four-star athlete who signed with powerhouse Alabama. The Crimson Tide never offered Engram a scholarship.

Instead, Engram had offers from the likes of Furman, Marshall, Navy, Ohio and South Alabama. His only other Power 5 offer was from Wake Forest.

But first-year Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze saw something in Engram at one of their camps, so he offered him a scholarship. Engram committed the next day, becoming one of the first commitments in the 2013 class. Little did he know at the time that his recruiting class would finish in the top five nationally and ultimately turn the Rebels into one of college football’s elite teams.

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It’s been almost four years since Engram attended that Ole Miss camp and received an offer. Since then, he has started 32 games, become the school’s all-time leader in receiving yards by a tight end (1,128) and helped lead the Rebels to back-to-back New Year’s Six bowls.

And he still has one more season left.

But even as a three-star recruit, Engram set lofty goals for himself. He came to Ole Miss with the vision of playing three years and turning pro. So when the time came to submit his paperwork to the NFL Draft Advisory Board, he did just that. Though he didn’t receive feedback -- only players projected to go in the first two rounds do -- he still heard he could go anywhere from the third to the sixth round.

"It was tough," Engram said. "It was really tough. I had people in my ear saying 'He should go. He could be playing with Tom Brady or Peyton [Manning].' Even watching the NFL during the season, I could see myself out there. And it was right there. It was in my grasp."

Engram remained mum as fellow teammates Laquon Treadwell, Laremy Tunsil and Robert Nkemdiche all declared early for the draft. He came in with those guys. He could have just as easily left with them.

But his dream would have to wait. He ultimately chose to return for his senior season.

"At first, once I decided, I was a little down," Engram said. "It was kind of a letdown on myself because that was a goal. I wanted to be a three-year guy and take my shot. But at the end of the day, I’m so at peace with it. I’m glad I did. I’m having fun. I’m enjoying my senior year, and we have something special brewing on this team this year."

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Ole Miss was back at practice last week, preparing for a new season, a new chapter. There was no Treadwell or Tunsil or Nkemdiche, but there was Engram running with the first-team offense and barking out directions to his teammates. He’s one of the leaders now, a role he’s embraced.

"I take pride in it," Engram said. "Just being a captain of this team, being a leader. That makes me better, because I hold others to a standard, and that means I have to hold myself to an even higher standard."

In addition to his expanded role as a leader, Engram should also see an expanded role in the offense. His production tailed off some last season -- he caught the same number of passes (38) but finished with just 464 yards, 198 fewer than the season before -- but with Treadwell gone, he should see a spike in targets. Plus, his coach has made it a point to get him more involved.

"You’ve seen glimpses of his best," Freeze said. "But we need to find ways to get him the football a little more next year. Hopefully that will help him have a very solid senior campaign."

Quarterback Chad Kelly agrees. He said he and Engram "didn’t have a groove together" last season, so they worked tirelessly in the offseason. They studied film, studied the way each other likes to play, and now there’s a chemistry there that wasn’t there before.

"He’s a freak athlete, and he has great hands," Kelly said. "He makes plays when the ball is in his hands. I think this year we’ve really got to get him the ball a lot more."

If all goes well, Engram won’t just hear his name in next year’s draft. He could hear it called in one of the first two rounds. But that’s not the only reason he came back. He didn’t come back just to improve his draft stock. He came back to take this Ole Miss program to the next level. The past two seasons have been pretty good, but Engram thinks the Rebels can do better.

"We don’t want pretty good," Engram said. "We want to go all the way. A lot of crazy things happen, just like last year with that whole Arkansas game. It’s adversity. Everybody goes through it. But to be a great team, you can’t work for third place, fourth place. You’ve got to work for the top.

"That’s the one thing I love about this team. We’re not expecting anything less than an SEC championship, a trip to Atlanta, and to be in the playoff, to be in prime time with everybody watching us compete for a national championship. That’s what we dream of. That’s what we work for. And that’s what we’re going to try to do."

If that happens, there will be more magazine covers in Engram’s future.