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Former Ole Miss head coach Billy Brewer almost did not sign Chucky Mullins, whose memory has been honored with the Chucky Mullins Courage Award.

Nate Wayne, a four-year letterman for the Rebels and the 1997 recipient of the award, who was a special guest at this year's ceremony, shared a similar story of how his high school coach convinced Coach Brewer to offer him a scholarship.

Fittingly, this year's winner, senior defensive back Mike Hilton, followed a similar path to Ole Miss.

Then a 5-foot-9, 175-pound athlete from Sandy Creek High School in Fayetteville, Georgia, Hilton was not the highest-profile football prospect. 

Hilton was a 247Sports composite three-star prospect, the No. 71 ranked player in Georgia by Rivals.com and the No. 78 running back in the nation by Scout.com. But something about him grabbed the attention of one coach, which made all the difference.

"I almost did not sign him," head coach Hugh Freeze said. "I almost messed it up. He had some academic issues at first and he was undersized. I had three weeks to recruit him and I was not sure that he was going to make it. Matt Luke went to one of their practices. They had five Division I players on that team, and he said there was no question who the alpha dog was on the field and that we had better take this kid."

Since stepping on campus in the fall of 2012, Hilton has been a key contributor on Ole Miss defense, playing in 36 games with 28 starts, including a start at every position in the defensive backfield. He led the Rebels with 71 tackles last season, to go along with 4.0 tackles for loss, three interceptions and seven pass break-ups.

Hilton started the spring at Rover safety, before suffering a broken thumb that ended his spring practice. But come the fall, Hilton will be one of the leaders on the Ole Miss defense, wearing Mullins' No. 38 jersey, whether it's at that Rover safety position, or one of the other starting spots in the defensive backfield.

"I have always been undersized, so I knew I had to put forth that extra effort," Hilton said. "You have to have the mentality to do what you have to do on and off the field, and I have been able to do that. I'm thankful for the coaches to give me an opportunity to come out here and do what I do and also show what I can do off the field."

Speaking about Mullins, Freeze said the one thing he keeps coming back to is something that Tea Southerland, the 1992 winner of the award, said. Southerland said it was one of the highest honors he'd ever received, which Freeze said is a great statement, but the statement that followed really grabbed him. He said, "I wonder if Chucky would say they got the right guy."

Freeze said the one thing he knows that the right kind of people have is the ability to finish. That doesn't mean you don't stub your toe or you fall down, but they finish. Hilton, Freeze said, is the one guy they kept coming back to represent the spirit of Mullins.

"We have made our kids understand that if you get award this award, it's a big deal," Freeze said. "It's the highest award that our program gives, and it comes with a lot of responsibility. This year, out staff had a difficult selecting it, not because we couldn't the one, but because we had five who were all deserving. That's a good sign for our program."

"When I put that 38 on, nothing else mattered, said Wayne, who also enjoyed an eight-year professional career in the NFL. "It wasn't just about me. It was about my wife, my daughter, my family, my Ole Miss family and Chucky. At that point, I realized that every decision I made didn't just affect me. It affected everyone involved with me. If it wasn't for that mentality, who knows where I would be today."

Graduate student linebacker Deterrian Shackelford will wear Chucky Mullins' No. 38 jersey for the second time in his Ole Miss career, but for the first time in Saturday's Grove Bowl, he wore it during a game. 

The first non-senior to win the award in 2011, Shackelford also became the first-two recipient of the Chucky Mullins Courage Award.

"It's a blessing," Shackelford said. "It's the first time something like that has happened at this university, so I'm honored and blessed that the coaching staff and the people who had a part in this selection process picked me to represent Chucky Mullins with that honor.

"My junior year, I didn't think I had a possibility of winning either, so both of them caught me off guard. I'm overwhelmed. I never imagine going to a university and having this much of an impact, especially having as much of an impact as I have had not being on the field. Growing up, you always think your impact is going to be making sacks and touchdowns, but to see that in a different view, I have certainly been blessed to be in that situation."

Shackelford was awarded a sixth year of eligibility after he missed the entire 2011 and 2012 season due to knee injuries. Despite his absence on the field, he remained a team leader on and off the field. He played both linebacker and defensive end last year and found a home at middle linebacker this spring.

Raised expectations were a common theme throughout the spring coming off an 8-5 season and a Music City Bowl victory, which he and his teammates have embraced entering the summer leading up to the season opener against Boise State on Aug. 28 in Atlanta.

"I don't feel like it was an unrealistic expectation," Shackelford said. "It was all realistic. The things that we can do this year are no dream. There's no, 'Maybe, we can do it; maybe we can't.' 

"We know we have the pieces to the puzzle and we can do it. The time is now. We feel a sense of urgency. We put ourselves in a great position. We have a lot of veterans coming back. We can do a lot of big things, but we have to stay humble and we have to keep working. In spite of all the hype and all of that, we have to stay humble and continue to work. We can go far."

Key Spring Dates

The spring athletics season has official kicked off, and here are a few key dates that won't show up on the usual team schedules. You will be hearing tons more about these events in the coming weeks, but consider this your save the date.

March 5 - Football spring practice starts
March 31 - Rebels Choice Awards
April 5 (AM) - 25th Annual Chucky Mullins Courage Award Ceremony Presented by the M-Club
April 5 - Grove Bowl
April 13-18 - BancorpSouth Rebel Road Trip



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