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Evan Engram’s decision to return to Ole Miss is paying off with a breakout season

Engram, who came back for his senior year in order to improve his draft stock, is the country’s most productive tight end.

NCAA Football: Alabama at Mississippi Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Evan Engram wasn’t supposed to be playing for Ole Miss this season.

He, like fellow 2013 classmates Laremy Tunsil, Laquon Treadwell and Robert Nkemdiche, expected to be wearing an NFL uniform by now. After leading the country in receptions and receiving yards for a tight end as a sophomore, Engram figured last season would be his farewell tour.

"It was tough," Engram told ESPN of his decision. "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."

But underwhelming production (38 grabs for 464 yards and two touchdowns) and deficiencies in size and run blocking led NFL scouts to recommend another year in school. So Engram is back.

Four games into his senior season, it looks like a damn good decision. Engram leads the country’s tight ends in both receptions (26) and receiving yards (397). On Saturday against Georgia, the in-state school that labeled him a “tweener” and never bothered to recruit him, he was five yards shy of his third 100-yard game and snatched down his third touchdown of the season.

“The chemistry is really good with Chad [Kelly],” Engram said the week previous after piling up nine receptions for 138 yards and a touchdown against Bama’s defense. “I think Chad is a big confidence guy. He likes to believe in his guys and wants to trust his receivers and that’s what we worked on as a corps, as an offense this offseason.”

With Kelly leaning heavily on Laquon Treadwell during his first season in the offense, Engram was targeted on just 11.8 percent of passes in 2015-16. But Engram has taken over as the go-to guy this season: Kelly (and in garbage time, Jason Pellerin) have thrown Engram’s way 26 percent of the time, nearly identical to Treadwell’s 2015-16 rate and almost 10 points higher than the second-most targeted receiver this season, Van Jefferson.

Engram’s currently averaging 8.5 targets, 6.5 receptions and 99 receiving yards per game. At that pace, he’ll pass his 2015-16 totals in all three categories by the midpoint of the season.

Engram promised to be a more complete receiver as a senior, and we’ve seen an increase in both efficiency and explosiveness. His 76.5 percent catch rate is up from 69.1 a year ago and his 15.3 yards per catch is up from 12.2. He ranks second in both categories on this season’s team (the monolithic Damore’ea Stringfellow leads in catch rate and freshman A.J. Brown leads in yards per reception).

When asked during his Monday press conference what explains Engram’s improvement, Hugh Freeze noted that moving Engram around the formation and the wealth of other receiving targets has prevented defenses from keying in on his star tight end.

Every week we are moving him around a good bit. The second part to that is they have other things to worry about than just Evan. We have some pretty good receivers. If you want to double him inside then there are some people outside that are in one-on-one situations. You've got to feel really good about that, when [Stringfellow] and [DaMarkus] Lodge and Van [Jefferson] and [Markell] Pack and Quincy [Adeboyejo] and those other guys. You've got to decide and I think that Evan benefits from that. I think it is a combination of us moving him around and the way our receivers are playing.

Engram also added about eight pounds of muscle and worked on his technique to become a better blocker. It looks like it’s paying off. Here he is against Bama stonewalling Tim Williams, a pass-rushing monster who piled up 10.5 sacks last season.

Engram’s decision to return to school is paying off with a breakout season—one that in turn could pay off with high selection on draft day. He’s ranked the fourth best tight end prospect in the country by both Mel Kiper Jr. and CBS Sports. Told by pro scouts that he wouldn’t crack the top two rounds last season, he’s currently projected by CBS to come off the board in the second round.