Earning what was close to 24-hours of free ESPN advertising in the process, Hugh Freeze and the Ole Miss Rebel coaches signed four five star players on 2013's signing day. Three of these players were the top player at their position, and all four of them could have earned a scholarship to literally any SEC school they could have wanted to attend. The hype was tremendous for these four athletes and, yet, somehow they all managed to meet or even exceed it. After their first season, each of the four was named a freshman all-American, and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell won SEC Freshman of the Year.
Here's how each of those four did this past year, as well as a look at what we can expect out of them in the future.
Defensive back Tony Conner entered the season as the "forgotten five-star," probably because he, unlike his counterparts, wasn't a unanimous five-star selection (the Scout service had him ranked that highly, others did not). The South Panola product wasn't penciled in as a starter by fans, and many people had tempered expectations for his first season, suggesting that he would struggle in coverage as he got used to complex passing offenses. Then, on opening day against Vanderbilt, Conner had a gorgeous interception on his first play as a Rebel in a backup role at the hybrid linebacker/safety "Huskie" position. That was his only pick all year, but it wasn't the only impact play he would make. Conner would go on to start the next twelve games at that spot, allowing Mike Hilton (the previous starter) to lock up a starting spot at cornerback. Conner finished the season with 66 tackles, 5 TFL, 6 passes broken up, and 4 QB Hurries. He also allowed the coaches to play more "base" than normal since he is much more capable in coverage than many (myself included) would have guessed. He could cover slot receivers as a "nickel corner" despite being listed at 6'1" 210 lbs.
At times, Conner showed flashes of being the best defensive player on the team. If he can progress some in the offseason, he could become a dominant force that offenses have to locate on every play.
As the number one overall high school prospect, no one came in with more hype around them than Robert Nkemdiche. Early in the season, he would show flashes of dominance. Other times though, he was totally taken out of plays while only being single-teamed. He simply couldn't make the defensive end position work out as a pass rusher. Then a hamstring injury against Texas A&M got him off schedule and caused him to miss three games. When he returned, the switch had flipped. Now spending a huge majority of his time at defensive tackle, Nkemdiche became a pocket disrupting presence, getting off the ball quickly and wreaking havoc on the interior of opposing offensive lines. He finished the year with 3 tackles, 8 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 2 passes broken up, and 3 QB hurries in ten starts. Those may not be the stats that many hoped for from the #1 player in the country, but it does look like he is trending strongly upwards. Against Georgia Tech in the Music City Bowl, Nkemdiche arguably played his best game as a Rebel, giving fans a glimpse at what he could be next season. With a likely influx of pass rushers (the return of C.J. Johnson and Carlos Thompson from injury as well as the addition of several recruits), offenses won't simply be able to scheme around him with extra blockers or escape in the other direction when he gets penetration.
After the first few August practices, rumors started to spread that Laquon Treadwell wasn't all that good and would likely not see as many snaps as four-star incomer Quincy Adeboyejo. Those reports started to change. By the time the Rebels headed to Nashville to kick off the season against Vanderbilt, those covering the program were telling fans to be prepared for major involvement from Treadwell. Even that didn't prepare Rebel fans for what was to come. Treadwell essentially set every freshman receiving record at Ole Miss and was named SEC Freshman of the Year in the process. He finished the year with 72 catches for 608 yards and 5 TDs. He also forced a fumble against Mississippi State after Bo Wallace threw an interception. He even displayed ability as an excellent blocker, helping to spring a number of big gains all season.
Treadwell wasn't utilized in the way many expected after he exploded out of the gates. Time will tell how capable he is as an outside receiver, but he that wasn't his role as a freshman. He generally did his damage across the middle or with bubble screens. In limited action downfield, he looked very good, but that was too uncommon for the freshman to make any real judgments. We will have to see how he develops as a more complete receiver before crowning him the best ever to play at Ole Miss.
Laremy Tunsil immediately won the starting left tackle job from a fifth-year senior incumbent starter. He immediately showed why and didn't look bad in a single game. Tunsil allowed one sack all season despite facing tremendous defensive ends all year. He also did well in run blocking, often being tasked with blocking on the read-side (which meant he had to get to the second level a lot). He has the look of a high, high draft pick and had the best freshman season of any offensive lineman in program history. Honestly, Laquon Treadwell had a very good year, but Laremy Tunsil deserved SEC freshman of the year accolades in my view. It just isn't one of those types of awards that goes to offensive linemen because of their lack of measurable stats.
The freshmen met or even exceeded expectations across the board. Few expected them to all immediately be impact players, but they were. That, coupled with the number of other freshmen from that class who have already contributed a lot, gives off the impression that Ole Miss will be in a good place in terms of talent for at least the next few years.