The Rebels were a month out of playing in the Sugar Bowl for the first time in over four decades. Laquon Treadwell, Robert Nkemdiche and Laremy Tunsil had all but made up their minds to leave, despite their public statements to the contrary. Engram, though, was a toss-up.
It was like any other day, really. He was walking the halls of the Manning Center in between practice or his next round of interviews or treatment or workouts. He spotted noted film junkie Chad Kelly alone in the quarterback room, so he stepped in. If ever in search of Kelly — who led an Ole Miss offense that broke or tied 14 school records last season — he can likely be found watching game tape. His obsession with film study goes so deep, teammates have cited his tendency to bring an iPad to team breakfasts. He can’t help himself.
Kelly faced a decision about his future, too, but his was less drama-filled. Kelly had long leaned heavily towards returning, even if the door was cracked, however slightly. But he wanted Engram with him.
“Are you coming back?” he asked.
“I don’t know yet,” Engram answered.
“Your (butt) is coming back,” Kelly replied.
Engram ultimately decided to return. And from his numbers through three games as senior, it certainly appears he made the right call.
Engram, a preseason All-American and All-SEC selection, leads the conference in receptions (20) and receptions per game (6.7), while ranking third in receiving yards (302) — he leads the nation in all of those categories for a tight end. He caught nine passes for 138 yards and one touchdown Saturday against Alabama for his fifth career 100-yard game and second of the season.
No. 23 Ole Miss is 1-2 on the year and hosts No. 12 Georgia Saturday at 11 a.m. CT.
“Just having to step up and make plays,” Engram said of his production so far. “Definitely more action down the field. Chad, the chemistry’s really good with Chad. I just go out there and if my name is called, I want to make a big play. That’s a big part of being a leader by the team, leading by example. Leading vocally as well, but making plays downfield and being more utilized has definitely been a plus for our offense.”
If Kelly had opted to leave, Engram likely would have, too, and vice versa. He couldn’t see himself as the last one to pack his things, uproot his life and head off, no matter his love of school, his coaching staff and teammates.
He filed his draft paperwork and got fairly positive feedback. The New England Patriots were one of two teams who had him as a third-to-fourth round grade, although most scouts pegged him for the later rounds.
Ole Miss tight ends coach Maurice Harris is like a father figure to Engram. He had/has his trust, and Engram leaned on Harris to lead him down the right path. Harris, after gathering as much information as he could, advised Engram to come back for his final season.
“He’s worked extremely hard in the offseason,” Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze said. “He’s a great example, too, to use about making the decision to come back. That was absolutely the smartest and right thing for him to do, and too many kids are making that decision based on outside influences and not on wisdom. I was meeting with some (NFL) scouts (Monday) morning, and coming back has put him in a good spot. We’re obviously trying to find matchups that we think that he has a chance to win. He’s a touch matchup we believe, and he’s worked extremely hard to get to this point.”
Dane Brugler, draft scout for CBSSports.com, currently ranks Engram as his No. 58 prospect overall for 2017 and the No. 4 tight end. Brugler believes Engram is “an ideal ‘big’ slot receiver in the NFL,” citing his “easy release” off the line of scrimmage and “acceleration for a 225-pounder.”
Engram only helped himself. He just needed a final kick in the pants from Kelly.
“We had kind of spoken to each other about both of us coming back and we knew if one of us was coming back, the other one would come back,” Kelly said. “He’s a heck of an athlete, he’s a playmaker, he’s aggressive. He likes to hit people, too. He’s a blocker, so he’s not just a receiving tight end. He’ll put his helmet into someone. I’m just glad he stayed another year.”
On playing Georgia, his home-state school: “Nah, it’s cool. Just kind of growing up, I wasn’t a huge UGA fan, but I watched all the games and kept up with them just because they were our state team, I guess. There’s nothing emotional about it really. Maybe a little trash talk with my sister this week. It’s a game that we have to win, for sure. That’s what special about it.”
On why he didn’t grow up a Georgia fan: “I grew up a huge Ohio State fan. My mom went to Ohio State, so she like brain-washed me from birth. I liked Georgia just because that’s where I was from, so I would definitely pull for them. But I was psycho about Ohio State growing up, and I wasn’t as crazy about Georgia as a lot of people in Georgia were.”
On if Georgia recruited him out of high school: “Not really. I talked to them a few times, went on a trip but it wasn’t like an invite only, it was kind of like a big weekend where anybody could come. They really weren’t big in my recruitment. They came around toward the end of my senior year when I was playing really well, but I was solid with Ole Miss then so I really didn’t pay it any mind.”
On readjusting season goals after 1-2 start: “All off-season we were talking about the SEC championship and winning the national championship. Right now that’s a far cry from where we’re sitting right now. The most important thing is, first of all, that’s not out of the picture. Anything can happen, but we have to focus on winning one week at a time. We have to focus on small things, attention to detail, staying sharp in practice, preparation and winning one week at a time. I said in the locker room after the (Alabama) game that we have to play for ourselves from now on. We play for ourselves and take care of ourselves, let everything else outside of our control (go) and see what happens. At the end of the day, take care of our business and see what happens. Right now we have to win one game at time.”
On what he told Kelly after the Alabama loss: “Look at both games, we did a lot to ourselves, which hurts because it’s after the fact and you can’t go back and change it and save the day. But we really hurt ourselves in both of those big games. We still have a lot of football left; we talked about that. We’re going to get right, we’re going to keep our energy high, keep our preparation. That’s one thing about this team — we’ve been hit with a lot of adversity. We’ve been slapped in the face with it, but we’re still ready to go, to come to work and get the big win this Saturday. We’re just looking forward to the rest of the season and keeping our drive.”
On the team having a losing record: “It does not matter. We’ve still got a lot of football left, and we’re ready to take care of our business and play for ourselves. This record ain’t going to be like this for long.”