HOOVER, Ala. -- Evan Engram might have been one the most underrated true freshman in the SEC last season. Of course it didn’t help that he rolled his ankle and missed five games, and when he did return for the Music City Bowl he simply wasn’t 100 percent. But when he was on the field and healthy, he was the type of pass-catching threat that makes defenses cringe. At 6-foot-3 and 217 pounds, he had the build of a tight end and the athleticism of a receiver. On a team with Donte Moncrief and Laquon Treadwell, he had 20 receptions and three touchdowns in seven games before being sidelined.
Coach Hugh Freeze’s eyes lit up when asked about Engram at SEC media days this month. The guru of the Rebels’ offense couldn’t hide his enthusiasm; he couldn’t wait to see his promising tight end back on the football field this season. When Engram went out last season, Freeze had to turn to two walk-ons at the position. Though he “loved having them” and praised their effort, they were no replacement for Engram. It got to the point that from Week 8 on, Ole Miss released its pregame depth chart with three receivers, two running backs and no tight ends.
“I cannot overstate it,” Freeze said of Engram’s absence. “We changed last year when he went out. We were not the same.”
Early on against Vanderbilt, Texas, Auburn and Texas A&M, Ole Miss averaged 466 yards and 35.75 points per game. Week 7 against LSU -- the same game Engram rolled his ankle in the second half -- the Rebels racked up 525 yards and 27 points in a dramatic upset victory. But down the stretch in losses against Missouri and Mississippi State, the offense faltered, failing to score more than 10 points in either game. Without Engram, there was no one to work the middle of the field and keep the safeties honest. Quarterback Bo Wallace began forcing the ball and threw six interceptions in November alone as the Rebs limped to an 8-5 finish.
A healthy Engram should mean greater consistency for Ole Miss in 2014. He and fellow freshman Treadwell are a year wiser, and Wallace’s arm is finally back to 100 percent after never fully rehabilitating from shoulder surgery prior to last season. Moncrief might be off to the NFL now, but there is plenty to like about the depth of the receiving corps, especially 6-foot-3 sophomore Quincy Abedoyejio, whom Wallace said is the best route-runner and the fastest receiver of the bunch.
Even though the receivers deserve their fair share of acclaim, don’t sleep on Engram. He might not be a household name yet, but to the people who matter most he’s held in high esteem. As junior defensive end C.J. Johnson said, “I think it will be key to keep him healthy.”
“Evan is a little faster than people give him credit for, I think,” Johnson added. “He’s tough, really long, really athletic, has good hands. He can really cause some problems in the slot.
“Having Evan and the skill set he has is pretty special.”
Asked in May what Engram brings to the table, offensive coordinator Dan Werner said simply, “The fact that he’s almost a wide receiver.”
“He’s got the talent of a wide receiver, but he’s more physical so he can play inside. Now we’re getting him matched up on linebacker and safeties a bunch. That’s just a total mismatch.”
But it’s not just Engram who is poised to wreak havoc on SEC defenses this season. The entire league seems to be strong at tight end. When the John Mackey Award watch list came out last month, Engram and six other SEC players were on it: Rory Anderson, Hunter Henry, O.J. Howard, Malcolm Johnson, Jay Rome and C.J. Uzomah. The seven total selections (compared to five the year before) were more than any other conference in college football.