Game changers, three Rebels chosen in first round of NFL Draft
Hugh Freeze expected this day on Feb. 6, 2013 when Robert Nkemdiche, Laremy Tunsil and Laquon Treadwell signed with Ole Miss. He knew, when he garnered their signatures that day in February, they’d likely be gone in three years. I’d bet he wanted them to be gone in three years.
The highly-coveted prospects that Ole Miss signed that day weren’t prospects last night. They were professionals, gone to professional teams to play professional football. Over the next three months Nkemdiche, Tunsil and Treadwell will sign multi-million dollar deals with Miami, Minnesota, and Arizona. They’ll sign endorsement deals, and they’ll be more wealthy than 90 percent of the world. They’ll play for, hopefully, a long time. They won’t play another Saturday together in Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, but the impact those three had on a football program that was looking for life will be felt for many, many years.
When Freeze got to Oxford in 2011, Ole Miss was coming off its worst season in school history. The Rebels had just gone 2-10 and weren’t competitive with the Bulldogs of Louisiana Tech, not to mention the Bulldogs they played from Georgia or Mississippi State. Ole Miss had no hope, no life, no energy and was, for lack of a better phrase, left for dead by Houston Nutt.
Freeze took over in December of 2011 and got to work. He recruited the best he could with two months before signing day, and signed some key components to Ole Miss’ roster. The Rebels fought their way to six wins in 2012 based solely off heart, guts and sheer competitiveness.
I was in the stadium when Ole Miss beat Mississippi State that night in 2012 to clinch a bowl game. To a short-sighted kid from Eupora, the only thing I remember was Ole Miss shutting Dan Mullen up after losing to him the past three years. Ole Miss won the Egg Bowl that night, sure, but they likely garnered so much more.
Reality tells us that Tunsil, Nkemdiche and Treadwell likely wouldn’t have signed with a program that went 5-7 and missed a bowl game for the third consecutive year. Reality tells us that they will sign with Oklahoma, Georgia, Clemson or some other high level program. The reality was, however, that Ole Miss did win that game. The reality was, however, that Ole Miss changed their program forever that night.
It’s a disservice to guys like Trae Elston, Mike Hilton and C.J. Johnson to only credit those three with the last three years’ success of Ole Miss football. It’s also a disservice to think that Ole Miss plays in the Sugar Bowl this year without the services of those three.
Ole Miss won 27 games during the past three years, the most wins in a three-year era in more than 50 years. Ole Miss won 14 conference games over the past three years, the most in more than 50 years. Ole Miss beat Alabama in back-to-back years for the first time ever, and won in Tuscaloosa for the first time since 1988. They beat Mississippi State in back-to-back years for the first time in 11 years, and won in Starkville for the first time since Eli Manning was playing quarterback. They played in and won the Sugar Bowl for the first time since 1969.
They made Ole Miss nationally relevant, and in the span of three years made it cool for kids to play football at Ole Miss again. They were the pioneers that turned a football program from laughable to winners in three years. Ole Miss signed the No. 5 recruiting class in the country in 2016. That doesn’t happen without the careers of Treadwell, Tunsil and Nkemdiche.
Ole Miss has had players drafted in the first round before – that’s nothing irregular – but Thursday night was more than former Ole Miss players being selected. Thursday night was a celebration, a remembrance, a reflection on what those three did over their careers at Ole Miss.
If Ole Miss is to play in its first SEC Championship game over the next few years, tonight, like the day of Feb. 6, 2013, will be a night to remember. If Ole Miss plays in the college football play over the next few years, tonight will be a night to remember. These three didn’t do that. They didn’t play for an SEC title (God, they were close), but they paved the way for players, for coaches and for a University to reach a new level of football success that they’ve never seen before.
It doesn’t seem like Ole Miss had those three for three years. It doesn’t seem like their time should be up, but it is. Their time, their careers, their stats and their presence changed the perception of Ole Miss football, maybe forever. Thursday night on the stage of the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, their program-changing careers were validated. Their Ole Miss careers are over, in what seemed like a flash, but their impact could, and likely will, linger for a long, long time in Oxford.