OXFORD, Miss. -- Saturday's much-talked about matchup between Ole Miss left tackle Laremy Tunsil and Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett provided the nation with both intrigue and excitement. We were about to witness two future first-round draft picks slug it out in a prime-time game, but we were also curious how Tunsil, returning from a seven-game NCAA suspension, would fare in a no doubt rusty return.
Consider Tunsil stainless steel.
The 6-foot-5, 305-pound junior returned to his ferocious form as soon as he stepped into an electric Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Outside of one play that turned into a wild Garrett interception, Tunsil dominated the All-America candidate. He got zero real pressure on quarterback Chad Kelly and had a ghost-like performance for the better part of Saturday's 3 1/2-hour game.
All week, Tunsil had been a lightning rod for energy, anxious for his return. Coaches and players agreed that in a crucial week of practice before a season-defining game, Tunsil was a life force to feed off of and it continued against the Aggies.
His presence provided an essential emotional lift for the now-19th-ranked Rebels (6-2, 3-1 SEC), but he also was a physical force who rejuvenated and revitalized an offense that had been riddled with inconsistency. With Tunsil back at left tackle, Ole Miss was finally able to put its offensive line together with the right pieces going in the right places, starting with Fahn Cooper moving back to his home at right tackle from Tunsil's spot.
"Laremy is arguably the best tackle in America. If you play defenses like you play the other night, it is important to have him," coach Hugh Freeze said. "I think that allowing people to move them into their normal positions [along the offensive line] gets them to a more confident level as well."
The Rebels racked up 471 yards of offense, averaging 5.1 yards per play in the process. Kelly worked with a relatively clean pocket all night, as he was hurried only twice and sacked once. He would have had three touchdowns if not for a blatantly bad clop-block penalty that negated a beautiful 43-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter.
The most dramatic difference was when Ole Miss ran the ball. Tunsil's return sparked a running game that had been lousy in SEC play, averaging a mere 104 yards in three previous conference games. Against an improved Aggies defensive front, Ole Miss churned out 230 yards on a season-high 51 attempts (4.5 yards per carry).
What was even more impressive was that most of it came in the middle of the field. A team so used to swinging runs outside gutted the Aggies between the tackles behind Jaylen Walton's game-high 97 yards.
“Those dirty runs were getting positive yards," tight end Evan Engram said.
A lot of that had to do with Tunsil. Even when runs didn't go to his side, Ole Miss' line held its ground so much better because guys were in their correct spots and had a tremendous amount of comfort against a stout A&M defensive line. Cooper played arguably his best game of the season at right tackle, while the Rebels got solid guard play with a little bit of mixing and matching.
“The O-line did a tremendous job pushing the pile," Kelly said.
Going forward, the Rebels hope that Saturday's effort up front becomes the norm. With their franchise anchor of a left tack back in the saddle, that's a possibility. It's not just the physical presence Tunsil brings that automatically makes this line -- and offense -- better, it's the fact that guys can now line up where they were supposed to be all along.
Also working out in Ole Miss' favor is that it won't see a game-altering player like Garrett again during the regular season. Sure, a couple solid lines in LSU and Mississippi State loom, but Tunsil won't be tangling with anyone close to his level off the edge anymore, which should keep him that much fresher and Ole Miss' backfield that much safer.