After today's Pro Day held at the Manning Center on the Ole Miss campus, replete with 63 scouts from all 32 National Football League teams in attendance, and via national broadcasts by both the NFL Network and SEC Network, Rebel Coach Hugh Freeze stood before the media reflecting on the dreams of four years ago and then the reality of Ole Miss football now.
"Today validates what we have been selling for four years," said Freeze. "This was a great day for Ole Miss football - another step the program has taken in the right direction. I am thankful for all the media coverage because we have a beautiful place to showcase and our players did a great job of representing themselves.
"Four years ago, we were selling this possibility. Today, we are validated in what we were selling - development for the NFL."
Ole Miss has always had "decent" representation in the NFL, but lately the Rebel pipeline seemed to have dried up a bit and some of the Reb players still in the pro ranks - Eli Manning, Mike Wallace, Michael Oher, even Dexter McCluster and Brandon Bolden, are getting on up in years by NFL standards. The influx of "new" Rebels - especially impact type players - into the NFL dwindled down, but when Freeze and his staff signed four players who were ranked number one at their positions in 2013, it was obvious that was about to change.
"We believed in what the coaches were telling us and we believed in each other. I will never forget Signing Day of 2013 when Laremy (Tunsil), Tony (Conner), Robert (Nkemdiche) and I inked with Ole Miss," said Laquon Treadwell. "We were all the top players at our position in the country coming out of high school and we all had a dream of playing three years in college and heading to the pros. We trusted Ole Miss was the place to do that and today shows we were right."
Freeze could not say enough about the "Big Three" eligible for this year's draft (Conner is out with an injury and will return for his final year in 2016), but he was also happy about the "others," like Trae Elston, Mike Hilton, Channing Ward, Cody Core, Fahn Cooper, C.J. Johnson, Jaylen Walton, et al.
"I told the GMs and NFL administrators I talked with this morning, and there were a lot of them, to put on the tape of Laquon. Speed is not his game, but I don't see anyone outrunning the corners in that league. It's about using your body and strength and catching the ball in traffic and Laquon is as good as I have seen at those things," Freeze stated. "If you have the number one pick in the NFL, you can't bypass Laremy (Tunsil). I've never seen a big man bend and move like him - there are none like him. He will protect your QB at left tackle for years to come and you won't have to worry about the blind side," Freeze noted. "The narrative on Robert is he takes plays off, which is totally inaccurate, and he's had problems off the field, which only happened after his final regular season was over. He was a joy to coach to me and someone will look mighty smart drafting him high, and I told scouts and administrators that today.
"I'm also very proud of Mike and Trae and Fahn and Cody and Channing and Woody and Chief and Jaylen and all of them. They really helped themselves today with good numbers. I say the same thing for them I do for those high profile guys - put on the tape. The tape won't lie. These are quality football players who, in the right system with the right team, can make contributions to an NFL team and some of them could even become stars. Our exposure is not limited to the what is called the Big Three."
The publicity the Rebels have gotten the past three years, the steady growth of the program in terms of wins and recruiting prowess, and the way Ole Miss football is perceived now versus 2012 has changed things for Freeze and company.
"Our brand has changed for the better. Doors open for us now more easily. When we call recruits, they know us. They listen to what we have to say," Freeze closed.
And that will only get better after the late April NFL draft when three Rebels are expected to go in the first round, including Tunsil predicted to be the overall number one pick.
"High school kids dream of going to the NFL," said Treadwell. "We are proof if you come to Ole Miss, you have just as much chance to get there as any school in the country."
What started as a vision, a dream, a leap of faith, is now a reality.