Last season, Ole Miss' recruiting class was the talk of the college football world, as the number one player in the country and two other players ranked as the top athlete at their positions signed their LOIs to play for the Rebels. Added to those three five star talents were another five star and a bevy of four star prospects to put together the first top-10 recruiting class for Ole Miss in modern football recruiting history.
Toward the tail end of that recruiting class were a pair of three-star prospects who had long been committed to the Rebs and certainly didn't stick out or get much national attention. To many, they were the "depth" signings, the filler of the class. Fans payed little attention to them, and some people (myself included to an extent) couldn't figure out why Ole Miss was signing them.
Did the Rebels really need a third tight end signee who no one else really wanted? What about a receiver who didn't have many offers and was rumored to be moving to safety? Why a safety?
Evan Engram was thrown into playing a major role when tight ends AJ Jackson (the one we all wanted) failed to qualify and Christian Morgan (the other one we all wanted) was lost to a season-ending knee injury in Spring practices. The situation was dire. He would be the only scholarship tight end on the entire team, and no one knew what to expect out of him. Then, unexpectedly, we started to hear rumblings from players and coaches over the Summer that Evan Engram was actually a pretty damn good ball player in his own right, and that he could have more than a fleeting role in the Rebel passing attack.
In August practices, it became more apparent that Engram would be used in the passing game, but mostly out of necessity. No one totally knew how he would be used, since he wasn't all that physically big, but Bo Wallace seemed to have an affinity for throwing the ball to him in scrimmages. He even talked Engram up several times in interviews. It became harder and harder to pass off the murmurs of this guy's potential as wishful thinking. It seemed like maybe Evan Engram wouldn't force us to go into the season without a viable tight end after all.
Then the August 29th Thursday night season-opening game arrived. Rebel Fans were excited to see their team play Vanderbilt in Nashville in front of a national audience starved for football. Most were excited to see the season begin anew, and couldn't help but wonder what the offense would look like and, of course, how would the five-star recruits perform.
In the second quarter, with the Rebels down 14-10, Bo Wallace threw a four yard pass to Evan Engram, the first completion to the unheralded freshman tight end.
"Oh," I thought. "I guess it's good to make Vandy respect the tight end option."
Later in the drive, Engram caught a pass for 24 yards. Then immediately another for 11 yards. He looked as good as any freshman on the field that night. He looked ready for SEC football. Evan Engram wasn't simply a non-liability at tight end. He was an asset.
All of a sudden, it clicked. It made sense why the players and coaches liked this guy. As a flex tight end, it was difficult to know what was coming. Would he be lining up next to the tackle as an extra blocker? In the slot to go four wide? How would opposing teams match up against him? It's a guessing game. Put a cornerback on him in a running play, and that corner is totally removed from the equation. Most linebackers can't keep up with him in pass coverage.
He would finish the day with 5 catches for 61 yards, and it was obvious he was a real weapon in this offense. Engram continued to contribute, catching 21 passes for 268 yards and three touchdowns before being lost for the remainder of the season in the LSU win.
No one is questioning his impact now.
Derrick Jones was just as unappreciated, at least to many. The 6'2" 185 lb. Eupora product didn't play in the first three games of the season, and appeared destined for a redshirt year. The coaches, however, saw tall receivers around the league abusing smaller corners. They needed to get bigger at the position... fast. They took a chance and moved Jones to corner to see what he could do. In practice, he was effective. He wasn't dominant, but was holding his own at times. The only answer was to put him in a game situation and see what he did.
In his first action of the season, Jones had to play against Alabama. He wasn't great, but he wasn't bad and certainly brought more height to the table than any other Ole Miss cornerback. He finished the game with four tackles, and the experiment was no longer an experiment. Jones was at corner for good.
Jones didn't play against Auburn (probably because the coaches wanted corners to focus on the run), but he did play against Texas A&M. Texas A&M was one of the reasons Jones had moved to corner in the first place. The Rebels needed an answer for 6'5" phenom Mike Evans.
Evans had been a juggernaut all year, tallying 279 yards against Alabama alone. No corners could even stick with him. He was just too tall and too fast. And in his second career college game, and his second time ever playing cornerback, Derrick Jones was asked to cover him... and he did.
Many defensive players contributed, but Derrick Jones spent a lot of time on Evans. The same Mike Evans who had 279 yards against Alabama and would have 287 yards and four touchdowns a week later against Auburn, was held to four catches for 46 yards.
Jones would have a few bumps throughout the year, as you expect from freshman corners, particularly those who have never in their lives played cornerback. But he also had more highlights. For instance, though it didn't ultimately affect the outcome of the game, Jones played perfect defense against 6'6" Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham on a well-thrown fade route to the end zone late in the game. Jones positioned himself well, and reached the ball at the height of his jump to push it away before Green-Beckham even had a chance to catch it.
And the future looks bright for Jones. He's likely the third corner behind returning starters Senquez Golson and Mike Hilton, but when they need to cover a big receiver, Jones is ready.