Ole Miss made waves in February when it reeled in a consensus top-10 recruiting class that featured legitimate blue-chip prospects in wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, safety Tony Conner and No. 1 overall prospect Robert Nkemdiche at defensive end.
Long term, it was a sign that the future is bright in Oxford. That's apparently true in the short term as well.
The stars of head coach Hugh Freeze's 2013 recruiting class shined early and often in Thursday's dramatic 39-35 win over Vanderbilt in Nashville.
The 6'3", 215-pound Treadwell was the top performer of the night, catching nine passes for 82 yards to emerge as quarterback Bo Wallace's most reliable target. That was especially true in the third quarter, when he caught four passes on a seven-play touchdown drive that cut Vandy's lead to 21-17, and four more plus a two-point conversion to bring the Rebs even closer at 28-25.
Whether it was over the middle or down the sideline, Treadwell showed why he was the No. 1 wide receiver in the country in last year's 247Sports composite.
He isn't just a star of the future, he looks to be a star of the present. With Treadwell and established star Donte Moncrief lining up outside, the Rebel passing game is dangerous.
How about Nkemdiche?
The buzz heading into the opener was that he was being double-teamed in fall camp, and you saw why against the 'Dores. His stat line wasn't mind-blowing—two tackles, one for a loss and one pass breakup—but you saw the potential that made him the consensus top prep player in the country.
He was the only Rebel to get consistent pressure in the backfield both with the speed rush and the bull rush, and even converted a first down on a fake punt on an 11-yard run in the second quarter.
Sure, he made some freshman mistakes, like when he got a little overzealous and whiffed on Jerron Seymour's three-yard touchdown run late in the first half. But the 6'5", 294-pounder was the most consistent performer up front for the Rebs.
That says a lot, considering he's three months removed from the prom.
Tony Conner didn't disappoint either. He picked off a pass on Vandy's first series of the game, which led to an Ole Miss field goal. He followed it up with a pass breakup on the very next drive. At 6'1", 210 pounds, Conner is already built like an SEC safety and acted like one in Nashville.
The surprise of the night was another true freshman, tight end Evan Engram, who caught five passes for 61 yards, including a long of 24. Three of those catches came in the third quarter and were instrumental in Wallace (31-of-47, 283 yards) getting into a groove in the passing game.
The impact of the 2013 class in the opener is huge for this year's Rebels. This is a team that was competitive in virtually every game last season, and got most of that talent back. Several formidable newcomers have joined the fray, which will give Ole Miss some much-needed depth when the grind of the SEC schedule starts to take its toll.
Is Ole Miss a team to watch? After the way the Rebels battled on Thursday night, they'll be hard to avoid and ignore.