Ole Miss is bracing to be without All-America offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil for several more games, including Saturday's contest at Alabama (9:15 p.m. ET, ESPN), while the NCAA continues its investigation into allegations he violated NCAA rules.
The NCAA has conducted an investigation into Ole Miss' athletic department that has dragged on for more than three years now. The part of the investigation involving Tunsil heated up this summer when he and his mother's estranged husband, Lindsey Miller, had a physical altercation that prompted both to file domestic violence charges. Afterward, Miller claimed Tunsil had been riding around in cars with agents and had accepted impermissible benefits from agents and officials at Ole Miss.
Tunsil, a 6-foot-5, 305-pound junior, did not play in the Rebels' first two games. Sources told ESPN.com that the sticking point is a loaner vehicle Tunsil received from Cannon Motors in Oxford, Mississippi, while his car was in the repair shop. Tunsil allegedly kept that loaner vehicle for an extended period of time before returning it to the dealership, and the NCAA has deemed it an extra benefit.
Ole Miss athletic director Ross Bjork declined to comment Wednesday other than to emphasize the joint statement he and Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze released last week.
"The matters involving Laremy Tunsil aren't related to anybody on our football staff, Coach Freeze or any of the assistants," Bjork told ESPN.com. "We want to protect the young man and are doing everything we can to do that, but we also have to and need to and should protect our staff and our program."
Cannon Motors is one of the Ole Miss athletic department's corporate sponsors. Michael Joe Cannon, the CEO of Cannon Motors, is a former assistant football coach at Ole Miss. He has not returned messages left by ESPN.com.
Bjork said he wouldn't guess when Tunsil might be reinstated or if there's a chance he could miss the entire season. Recent reinstatement cases involving former SEC players suggest Tunsil is looking at a minimum suspension of four games.
Under NCAA rules, a player is required to miss 30 percent of his games for accepting impermissible benefits greater than $700. It could always be more, too, depending on mitigating factors. Former Georgia running back Todd Gurley was suspended for four games last season after accepting more than $3,000 in cash for signing memorabilia and other items over a span of two years. The NCAA said a longer suspension for Gurley was considered because the violations occurred over multiple years, but that Georgia's due diligence in its investigation and Gurley's full disclosure of his involvement were factors in not imposing a more severe suspension.
Former Georgia star receiver A.J. Green also received a four-game suspension to start the 2010 season after accepting $1,000 for selling one of his jerseys to a person the NCAA considered an agent.
Mike Sheridan has been the NCAA's investigator on the Ole Miss case, which dates back to former head coaches in women's basketball and football. Sources told ESPN.com there are leftover items from the Houston Nutt regime that could lead to minor penalties for the Rebels.
But the whole investigation took on a different turn in March 2013 after the Rebels brought in a top-five signing class in football. Some of the hype surrounding that class, particularly the highly rated out-of-state prospects Ole Miss signed, led to widespread innuendo about how the Rebels could attract such coveted players. Just before signing day in 2013, a fed-up Freeze fired back and tweeted that if anybody had any proof that he was cheating, they should email the Ole Miss compliance department.
Despite the length of the investigation, Ole Miss officials were hopeful it was winding to a close until the late-June altercation between Tunsil and Miller. They've since agreed to drop the charges against one another. Tunsil admitted to hitting Miller but said he was protecting his mother after Miller attacked her. Miller said Tunsil was the aggressor.
After the incident occurred, Miller sent pictures to ESPN.com showing bruises on his face. He said the whole thing escalated because he was angry at Tunsil for being so "stupid" for riding around in cars with agents and jeopardizing his eligibility. Sources told ESPN.com that Sheridan has had multiple conversations with Miller since that incident and has talked with somewhere between 10 and 20 Ole Miss football players.
Miller told ESPN.com at the time that he had spent his own money and time driving Tunsil to all-star games and camps and "this is the thanks I get."
Freeze, when contacted by ESPN.com, said he was not in a position to comment but maintained his stance from two years ago that he and his coaches had done everything the right way in their recruiting efforts.
Tunsil is rated by ESPN's Mel Kiper as one of the top-five overall prospects in the 2016 NFL draft. He's a two-time All-SEC selection and has started at left tackle since his freshman season.