Treadwell, Ole Miss finish 2015-16 season with a memorable Sugar Bowl win

NEW ORLEANS - Laquon Treadwell was going through warm-ups as he always does, catching pass after pass from Chad Kelly.

He wore a custom hat backwards with headphones in his ears. A few of his pregame receptions came in the designated Oklahoma State end zone, and the Ole Miss fans in the first few rows yelled to him. One of the greatest Rebels to ever wear the uniform smiled and laughed. He even put on a brief show with the football just for them.

The setting was different, of course. Ole Miss was but an hour-plus away from playing Oklahoma State in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. And Treadwell (as torn as he is on the NFL, and the inner-struggle is genuine) was getting loose for what was probably his last game as a Rebel.

A little while later, in the second quarter of a 10-3 game, he hauled in a 34-yard, beautifully-thrown touchdown from Kelly - just as they’d rehearsed. Same movement, same route, same pass. Blanket coverage couldn’t prevent the inevitable: Treadwell was going to score, and he was going to add another page to the likely final chapter of the memorable Ole Miss book he’s written in just three seasons.

Laquon Treadwell, a player who now belongs in the same sentence with the Archies and the Bruisers and the Elis and the Deuces and the P-Willies. The driving force for a Rebel team that responded week after week and finished the 2015-16 season with a 48-20 blowout win in the Ole Miss bowl of Ole Miss bowls.

The Rebels’ 48 points were the most they’ve ever scored in a bowl game. 

Ole So Sweet, indeed.

“It’s been a great journey to be a part of,” he said.

Treadwell finished with six catches for 71 yards and three touchdowns, becoming the single-season receiving touchdowns holder at Ole Miss. He even completed a pass, converting the “Treadwell pass” (as it’s been coined, positively and negatively) for 35 yards on a rainbow toss to running back Jordan Wilkins. He was as good as he’s ever been, maybe even more dominant, demonstrating one final time on a stage that commanded the attention of all of college football his devastating leg injury last season is buried far, far in the past.

As red and blue confetti fell, most every Ole Miss fan in attendance remained in their seats. They chanted ‘One more year!’ Treadwell stood next to Kelly, who was named Most Outstanding Player. Treadwell teared up.

“I’m not too much of an emotional guy,” said Treadwell, who established single-season school records for catches receiving yards and touchdowns. “It just came out. It was great. Rebel nation is amazing, man. Rebel nation has always supported us through the tough times. Me being injured a year and coming back and getting a ‘One more year!’ chant, it’s all a blessing. It was huge. I don’t know how to explain it. It was big.”

“I saw the tears in his eyes,” Kelly said. “Having this guy on my team is a blessing. He’s not only a hard worker, but he’s a big-time leader on this team. To have him for another year would be definitely huge. He’s a great overall player. When it’s time, it’s time. But I’m glad he was able to be on my team this year and be able to bounce back from an injury and set a school record.”

The Sugar Bowl was a fitting end for him, if this is, indeed, the end. He’ll likely make a decision on his future next week. He’s not alone. Laremy Tunsil is all but assured of turning pro, and he didn’t leave quietly. He said he hasn’t decided yet, that he’ll sit down and talk to his family and come to a decision next week. But he’s currently projected by a number of scouting services to be the No. 1 overall pick. 

In the game he all but neutralized star Oklahoma State defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah, a projected first-round selection in his own right. And Tunsil even took a Kelly lateral in for a two-yard touchdown run to become the first offensive lineman to score a touchdown in a bowl game in 20 years.

“We ran that play in practice a lot of times,” Tunsil said. He was the last player to leave the field. He stayed to high-five fans and take selfies before retreating to the locker room through the tunnel. “I was just happy I got the touchdown. I was happy. First touchdown. I’m a receiver inside.”

“The whole week of practice, this guy was catching it with one hand,” Treadwell said. “It’s something I’ve never seen. It was a great experience, I’ve never seen anything like it. A guy with his talent and the way he’s played all year and throughout the three seasons and him battling back from his injury, I think he deserved it the most.”

Robert Nkemdiche didn’t play in the game due to suspension, and he’s already announced his intentions to forgo his senior season and enter the draft. Never has there been a trio that’s meant so much to Ole Miss. The 2013 class forever changed the program, setting the course for back-to-back New Year’s Six bowls and opening the door for other top-rated recruits to view Ole Miss as a legitimate landing spot for potential championships and postseason games that matter.

The trio is gone now, and that’s OK. Because the legacy they’re leaving will carry on for good in Ole Miss lore.

“I will forever be indebted to the Robert Nkemdiche and Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil and the other kids, too, that have done a remarkable job,” Freeze said. “All of the kids that choose to come with you, you're indebted to. But that kind of was an eye-opener, I think, to some of the nation's best players.  And then to have success on the field, to be in two consecutive New Year's Six games, the Ole Miss brand has just grown.”

Freeze and Co. are showing no signs of slowing down. Each season has been an improvement under Freeze, from seven wins in his debut year to eight, nine and now 10.  Ole Miss currently boasts the No. 3 recruiting class in the country, headlined by five-star quarterback Shea Patterson, five-star offensive lineman and Tunsil replacement Greg Little, five-star wide receiver D.K. Metcalf and many, many more. Not to mention the Rebels are well in the game for five-star and No. 1 overall player Rashan Gary, five-star linebacker Mique Juarez, five-star wide receiver Nate Craig-Myers and others.

And while Ole Miss is saying goodbye to Treadwell, Tunsil and Nkemdiche, the 2016 core is playoff-caliber. 

“I think sometimes because of our early success, people forget this is only four years,” Freeze said. “Can we have some time to give us a chance to continue to build? That doesn’t mean you’re not going to have a down year, but gosh, if you look at any tenure of a coach, you’ve probably had one or two of those.

“All of ours have been steadily building.”

Kelly, though he hasn’t announced it yet, will be back. He completed 21 of 33 passes for 302 yards and a Sugar-Bowl-record-tying four touchdowns - the most ever by an Ole Miss player in a bowl game. He’s now second in SEC history in season passing yards, and his season total of 4,042 passing yards ranks third-best in SEC history. He's the third SEC QB to ever throw for more than 4,000 yards, his 4,542 total yards is the third-best in SEC history and he broke the school reord for pass completions in a season and tied Eli Manning's record for passing TDs in a season.

Tight end Evan Engram will return, and he took over the school record for career receptions by a tight end with his six catches and 96 yards. The offensive line without Tunsil still has a host of players who have starting experience: Jordan Sims, Javon Patterson, Rod Taylor, Robert Conyers and Sean Rawlings. The running back position is in good hands with Akeem Judd and Jordan Wilkins, while the wide receivers run at least six-deep, led by Damore’ea Stringfellow, Quincy Adeboyejo and Markell Pack.

The Ole Miss defense starts with Tony Conner and Issac Gross, and not far behind are Demarquis Gates - who could develop into an all-league player - D.J. Jones, Breeland Speaks, Marquis Haynes, Fadol Brown, Tony Bridges, Ken Webster and Zedrick Woods.

“We have high expectations for ourselves,” Freeze said. “The Ole Miss brand now is probably as strong as its ever been. We think we have an environment that is very attractive to a lot of certain type of people that are wanting to do something new and fresh at a different place that maybe hasn’t been done before. You’ve got to continue to recruit at a high level. I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t stay relevant in the Southeastern Conference. What that means year to year you never know because it’s such a grind. But I’m excited. I think this is a new normal.”

“It can be really scary,” Treadwell said of 2016 Ole Miss. “I feel like it can be really scary. Chad coming back, me still in the air. We knew we were capable of beating the top teams. The younger guys are still hungry, they’re still playing well, they’re still learning. A lot of guys got a lot of experience this year. With us coming in our first year, we had to go through some tough times and learn the system and learn how to beat top teams. The younger guys this year, they beat the top teams. Now it’s expected. They feel like they can do it and that it’s possible. Still getting top recruits. Everything can fall into place.”

The best programs don’t rebuild, they reload. And Ole Miss can now safely be talked about amongst the top teams in the country. Expectations have been raised, and gone are the days when the Music City Bowl meant a successful season.

“Ole Miss is back on top,” Tunsil said. “The Ole Miss brand is a new normal. We’re going to have great recruits come in and take over the game. All three of us sat down and said we were going to change the program. I’m glad we did.”

Treadwell smiled after his third touchdown, which tied a Sugar Bowl record. A little over 13 minutes remained, but the celebration was on, Ole Miss up 48-13 and only the final total left to be decided.

He kept the ball, and held it tight. The journey, at least for him, could very well be over. He wasn’t quite ready to let go. The journey for Ole Miss continues on. But what this season meant, and the place it will keep in history, will never be forgotten.

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