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COLUMN: Rebels’ big 3 leave behind legacy that has to be remembered

Maybe Ole Miss wins a championship in the near future. Maybe it doesn’t.

But any success down the road that may match or exceed what the Rebels have been able to do on the football field the last couple of seasons can’t be celebrated without thinking back to Feb. 6, 2013.

That’s when Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil said thanks but no thanks to virtually every national power at the time and yes to Ole Miss, changing a program’s fortune for the better.

In the three years since they signed their scholarship papers, Ole Miss has gone from a laughingstock in the Southeastern Conference to players, coaches and administrators standing under a post-Sugar Bowl confetti storm in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans on Friday, celebrating their program’s biggest win since an Archie Manning-led victory in the same bowl game 46 years before.

That’s no coincidence.

“We came to play together, and we came to win big games,” Treadwell said. “We did that all season, and this one just capped it and made it more spectacular.”

His off-field troubles kept Nkemdiche from joining his former teammates in New Orleans, but he, Tunsil and Treadwell had plenty of help getting Ole Miss to this point. The Rebels don’t win three straight bowl games without Bo Wallace at quarterback the last three years, and they certainly don’t spend New Year’s in the Big Easy without Chad Kelly taking that momentum and running up more total yards (4,542) than anyone ever has in a season in the SEC other than Johnny Football.

Head coach Hugh Freeze also got Tony Conner in that ’13 class and found a hidden gem in Evan Engram, who’s already caught more passes than any tight end in school history with a year to go. Wallace was part of Freeze’s first full recruiting class in 2012 as were Issac Gross (injured this season), Trae Elston and Mike Hilton, key cogs for the Rebels’ defense the last three seasons.

And then there were players already on the roster before Freeze’s arrival such as Aaron Morris, Justin Bell, Denzel Nkemdiche (until his career ended early, too) and C.J. Johnson who stuck it out after considering leaving the program following that 2-10 disaster in 2011 that officially made the Rebels the league doormat.

But things changed drastically when Freeze and his staff dared to go after the younger Nkemdiche, Tunsil and Treadwell, the nation’s top-ranked recruits at their respective positions and the kind of prospects a school like Ole Miss could usually only dream of landing.

A perfect storm worked in the Rebels’ favor, though, as a roster short on elite talent and depth ensured the trio of immediate playing time and being off to the NFL in three years if everything went according to plan. And whereas knocking off ranked opponents, playing in New Year’s Six bowls and winning championships would just be added to the collection at schools like Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Oklahoma, that would be far from the case at a place like Ole Miss.

It would be different.

Treadwell was the first to jump on board, verbally committing in January of that year. Nkemdiche, in one of the least dramatic announcements you’ll see from the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit, joined his older brother and Treadwell on National Signing Day, and Tunsil followed suit.

“All three of us sat down, and we said we were going to change the program,” Tunsil said. “And that’s what we did man.”

The plan has gone perfectly, even if everything along the way hasn’t.

Nkemdiche’s preparation for next year’s NFL Draft began early after a marijuana possession charge stemming from his fall from an Atlanta hotel room last month that still has some blanks that only Nkemdiche will be able to fill in for NFL personnel when he’s grilled about the events of that night at the scouting combine in February, but unless something far more serious comes from all of that, the three-time All-American will still be taken in the first round.

Treadwell, who exhibited the kind of rare athlete he is by quickly bouncing back from that gruesome leg injury and turning in the best season ever statistically by an Ole Miss receiver, announced he’s off to the next level Monday afternoon as did Tunsil.

It was only fitting for the duo’s fingerprints to be all over their last game in an Ole Miss uniform. Treadwell got the ball rolling on the 48-20 onslaught of Oklahoma State with touchdown catches on back-to-back drives in the first half and tied a Sugar Bowl record with his three scoring grabs while Tunsil finally got to touch the ball, delivering the dagger on that 2-yard touchdown lateral at the end of the first half.

Nkemdiche, Tunsil and Treadwell have raised Ole Miss’ profile to a height that wouldn’t have been possible without taking a chance on Freeze and daring to be different, making Oxford a desired destination rather than afterthought for the kind of elite talent the Rebels need to continue to stockpile in their quest for a championship.

Ole Miss is working on a recruiting class for 2016 that rivals the one Nkemdiche, Tunsil and Treadwell headlined three years ago. Like they did with Tunsil, the Rebels went out of state to pluck the nation’s top offensive tackle prospect in Greg Little from Texas. They’ve also got five-star quarterback Shea Patterson and D.K. Metcalf, the local star receiver from Oxford, in the fold.

The group is ranked as the nation’s No. 2 haul, according to Rivals.com, and Ole Miss is reaching near (Starkville wideout A.J. Brown and Noxubee County defensive end Jeffery Simmons) and far (New Jersey five-star defensive tackle Rashan Gary and Florida four-star receiver Nate Craig-Myers) to try to add to it before the first Wednesday in February.

“The Ole Miss brand has come so far,” Freeze said. “I will forever be indebted to the Robert Nkemdiches and Laquon Treadwells and Laremy Tunsils and the other kids, too, that have done a remarkable job. 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.”

If Little, Patterson, Metcalf and the rest of the incoming class manage to help the Rebels eventually break through and win any kind of title during their time in Oxford, they’ll all owe a tip of the cap to a trio of future first-rounders who made it cool to come here.