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Sophomores key to Ole Miss success

8/16/2014

OXFORD, Miss. – Before Ole Miss' historic 2013 recruiting class came together, No. 1 overall recruit Robert Nkemdiche had a question for his eventual teammates.

Instead of joining a powerhouse such as Alabama, Florida, Georgia or LSU, why not start something special for the future? Why not help build something special?

On Feb. 6, 2013, the seeds for success were planted as the Rebels signed the nation's No. 5 recruiting class, adding the No. 1 receiver (Laquon Treadwell) and offensive tackle (Laremy Tunsil), the No. 2 safety (Tony Conner) and the No. 1 junior college defensive tackle (Lavon Hooks) to a haul that included the grand prize of Nkemdiche.

"I wanted to make history," Nkemdiche said. "We're going to say we helped bring this program to where it is now. It'll be like we brought this up. We sat through all the 'Ole Miss is nothing' [talk], and we still did what we had to do to bring it up."

For years, that talk has dominated the Ole Miss narrative. Success has been sporadic and short-lived in Oxford. Ole Miss hasn't won an SEC title since 1963 and has endured 19 losing seasons since claiming the national championship in 1962.

This recruiting class not only provided the Rebels with immediate field help, it gave a fan base hope. Coach Hugh Freeze's legacy and the perception of the entire program rests with this class.

That's quite the burden for a group of players still waiting to jump into their 20s, but that's how important and how good this class is.

"It's a lot of pressure, but we're going to humble ourselves," Tunsil said. "We're going to lead the team, we're going to take care of the team."

It didn't take long for this group to earn respect, as older players naturally drifted toward them. Some expected them to come in and push their high school weight around, but that didn't happen. For the most part, they sat and listened. They watched and learned. Then, when they were asked to perform, they impressed, even through the development process.

"We always wanted to do extra work," said Treadwell, who led the Rebels with 72 receptions as a freshman. "We took it upon ourselves to push everybody and make sure we're always working and trying to fix something that's wrong.

"It's a cool feeling, but I think with the way [we] work, they have no choice. Summer workouts, I'm always trying to push everybody, trying to be out front and give it my all on every play. It carries over when they see it in film. It's like, ‘Well, he's doing it right, so if he's telling me something, I'm sure he knows what's going on.'"

The core of this class lies in Nkemdiche, Treadwell and Tunsil. All three were heavy contributors last year, with Treadwell and Tunsil making the biggest impacts. Treadwell was named the SEC Freshman of the Year by the league's coaches, and he started 12 games. Tunsil started nine games at left tackle and was a second-team All-SEC selection.

Nkemdiche struggled to consistently showcase the dominance that made him such a special high school player, and he registered two sacks and eight tackles for loss. But with his mind and body in better shape -- and a move to defensive tackle -- Nkemdiche is primed for a big second season.

Those are the stars, but there are plenty of other important parts to this class. Conner collected 66 tackles in 12 starts last season and has All-SEC written all over him, while tight end Evan Engram was one of Ole Miss' best offensive weapons (21 catches for 268 yards and three touchdowns) through eight games. Ankle surgery ended Engram's season after that, but he was still named a second-team All-SEC member.

Freeze also hopes to see more development this year from a few pieces that could be crucial to the future. He has his eye on running backs Jordan Wilkins and Kailo Moore, and wide receiver Quincy Adeboyejo, who Freeze has pegged as a breakout candidate. The quarterback of the future could also lie in Ryan Buchanan or DeVante Kincade.

"The big thing that you would hope from them is that they're maturing mentally as young men on and off the field and understanding how to handle the grind more than they did when they first arrived," Freeze said of his sophomores. "That to me is the next step in their sophomore year."

Tunsil said the goal of this class is to bring a national championship back to Oxford. He and his classmates want it now. That might be a little premature, but that sort of thinking has been infectious throughout the team, and it has these sophomores eager to continue what they think will be an extraordinary journey.

"It's great that we could trust one another to do something special, and it's happening right before our eyes," Nkemdiche said. "After this huge year we're going to have, they're going to know we came for a purpose."