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For high school football players in Georgia, all roads lead to the Georgia Dome and the state championships. 

For a handful of Rebels, those roads lead home, as Ole Miss opens the 2014 season against Boise State in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic at the Georgia Dome on Thursday night.

"It's huge for me," said sophomore tight end Evan Engram, a native of Powder Springs, Georgia. "Playing in the Georgia Dome, our high school career, our state playoffs are in the Georgia Dome. We never really made it to state, so actually getting there and playing in front of a big crowd at home in front of my family, coaches and friends is a big deal for me."

The Ole Miss roster includes nine players from the Atlanta area that will return there for a homecoming of sorts, including three projected starters in Engram, junior cornerback Mike Hilton from Fayetteville, and sophomore defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche from Loganville.

"Any time you can go back home where people who you were raised with can come see you, it adds a little something I'm sure," head coach Hugh Freeze said. "We recruit hard there, so hopefully some of those kids can come too. For our kids from that area, it means a lot to them to be able to go back home."

Nkemdiche, the headliner of the group and a first team freshman All-America selection, makes his return to the Dome, where he helped lead Grayson High School to a Class 5A state title as a junior.

"It's a great feeling getting to go back to the Georgia Dome," Nkemdiche said. "I started all four years of my high school (career) there, so it's great to go back and start one more is awesome. I want to try to finish there, too."

Engram was also a part of the Rebels' historic 2013 signing class, along with Nkemdiche, and became one of the first two true freshmen in school history, along with fellow sophomore Laremy Tunsil, to be named All-SEC. He missed part of last season with a high ankle sprain, but he's back to 100 percent and primed for a breakout season.

"Having Evan (Engram) down there and the matchups he creates with linebackers and things like that can be huge for us in the red zone this year," said senior quarterback Bo Wallace of Engram. "That's going to be huge for us if we can come away with touchdowns in the red zone."

Hilton, one of the elder statesmen of the group, will make his second trip to his home state in his college career, having played at Georgia as a freshman. He has bounced between cornerback and Huskie throughout his career, starting 16 games, but will likely play cornerback Thursday night.

"Mike Hilton is primarily at corner now," Freeze said. "Some of that would depend on what personnel we're facing. He's prepared to play both, depending on the personnel we get. You'll see him at both before the year is over."

Two freshmen are also expected to see significant action in linebacker DeMarquis Gates, a Hampton native, and cornerback Kendarius Webster, a Stockbridge native. 

Gates has impressed from the start of fall camp and will likely play a role on special teams, while Webster has been pressed into action as the primary backup at field corner with injuries in the secondary.

"He can run, he's physical, he's tough, and he's smart," said defensive coordinator Dave Wommack of Gates. "He didn't play last year, so I really wasn't expecting what we have been getting from him. Each and every day, including today, he has shown up, so that's a good thing for us."

"I'm really impressed (with Webster)," Hilton said. "I played him in high school, so I knew how he would play. He's really going to help us in the long run. He's still young. He's going to be a really good one for us."

Rebel Nation is known for traveling well, and the season opener is no different, especially for the family and friends of the Atlanta area players.

"I had to fight for tickets to get some people in," Engram said. "I have a lot of people buying them and a lot of people sending me 'good luck' texts, saying they'll be watching. Hopefully I see a couple of 'Go Evan' signs. It will be fun."

Nkemdiche Headlines Retooled D-Line

The return of junior defensive end C.J. Johnson and additions of sophomore Fadol Brown and freshman Marquis Haynes have changed the face of the defensive line, but freshman All-American Robert Nkemdiche remains front and center. 

With a season of experience under his belt, it's been a different experience for the former consensus No. 1 recruit this fall.

"I know the playbook so much better," Nkemdiche said. "I'm so much more chilled out. I'm not freaking out right now. I'm not nervous. My head's on straight, and I'm ready to have a huge game.

"I had a really good camp. I was focused. I'm bringing it every day, 100 percent, no matter what. I'm ready for the season and to have a really dominant season."

Beside Nkemdiche at defensive tackle has been a rotation of senior Bryon Bennett and junior Woodrow Hamilton with junior Issac Gross out due to injury.

"You lose quickness in there," said defensive coordinator Dave Wommack of missing Gross. "But kudos to Bryon Bennett because I have never seen him play as well as he's playing right now, across the board. He has some size, quickness and been super in there for us. I have been really pleased with him, but it affects your depth.

"Woody's issue has been staying out there on the field. When he stays out on the field, he's a really good football player. He's extremely tough to block. He's not just an anchor. He has some quickness and he can move around. He fits our scheme really well."

With the depth and experience on the defensive side of the ball, Wommack looks to rotate more players and be more aggressive this season. 

On the defensive line, Wommack said, they would like to play 8-10 players and get back to bringing pressure (five or more players) 35-40 percent of the time after bringing pressure around 27-28 percent this past season.

"This camp, we have shown so much progress in the D-line," Nkemdiche said. "We're getting after the quarterback every day. (Dave Wommack) is so much more comfortable. He's sending us four guys and letting his guys cover."

"We weren't able to do that last year because of the pass rush we didn't have and we lacked the corner play that we needed," Wommack said. "Boise is going to see some things they haven't seen in the last two years."


Haynes, Freshmen Show Out on Defense

Nkemdiche described Haynes as a physical freak. 

A former high jumper and 100-meter sprinter in high school, Haynes enrolled in January and broke into the two-deep early in the fall camp and has remained there.

"He has a knack for the football," said Nkemdiche of Haynes. "He's a freak. He gets to the football no matter what. If he has a missed assignment, he's still going to get to the ball either way. I like him. He plays 100 percent every down. That's what I like about Marquis. He's going to be really good in the future."

Wommack noted his raw talent, speed and quickness, adding that he's done a good job learning what they have asked him to do. He might not start in the season opener, Wommack said, but in certain packages, he will certainly be at one defensive end spot.

In addition to Haynes, Wommack raved about a trio of freshmen in defensive back A.J. Moore, linebacker DeMarquis Gates and cornerback Kendarius Webster. With the injuries in the secondary, Moore has stepped up as the team's third Huskie and Webster is in the mix as the team's fourth cornerback.

"Both of those freshmen hit a ceiling and then they came back down," said Wommack of Moore and Gates. "Kendarius Webster, too. They pushed forward and have gotten smarter each and every day, and they're going to play for us this year.

"This freshman class was a hit across the board. From top to bottom, it was better than last year's class, if you want to say that. I know there were some stars in that class the year before, but top to bottom, I don't think we missed on anybody. We have some really good football players. Some of them, if we're not going to use them this year, we absolutely don't want to burn them, and we will make that choice later on."


NOTABLE

In individual and team drills open to the media, the first-team offensive line featured sophomore Laremy Tunsil (LT), junior Aaron Morris (LG), junior Ben Still (C), junior Justin Bell (RG) and junior Fahn Cooper (RT). Sophomore Robert Conyers also got some first-team reps at right tackle when Cooper moved from right tackle to left tackle.

When the offense showed sets with two tight ends in team drills, it featured sophomore Evan Engram lined up at a traditional tight end spot and in the slot, with senior Nick Parker also at tight end on the first team. 

Sophomore Matt Brown played a role similar to Engram, with sophomore Jeremy Liggins also at tight end on the second team.

Freeze said he's looking for at least one wide receiver to emerge from a group that includes junior Quintavius Burdette, redshirt freshman Trey Bledsoe and freshmen Dayall Harris and Markell Pack.

Johnson, Brown and Haynes all got first-team reps at defensive end, with Nkemdiche and Hamilton at defensive tackle.

Brown, along with sophomore John Youngblood, got second-team reps at defensive end, with Bennett and senior Lavon Hooks at defensive tackle.

Senior Andrew Fletcher, Freeze said, remains in the lead for extra point and field goal duties from 43 yards and in, with redshirt freshman Andy Pappanastos and freshman Gary Wunderlich in competition to handle longer field goals.

In other special teams work, the first-team kickoff returners were junior running back Jaylen Walton and sophomore running back Mark Dodson. 

The second-team kickoff returners were sophomore cornerback Kailo Moore and junior safety Trae Elston. Redshirt freshman running back Eugene Brazley and junior running back I'Tavius Mathers also worked with the kickoff returners.

The kickoff return units also included freshman defensive back A.J. Moore on the first team and Gates on the second team. 

Other notables on the kickoff return units included junior defensive end Channing Ward, redshirt freshman running back Jordan Wilkins, senior linebacker Keith Lewis and sophomore safety Anthony Alford on the first team.

QUOTABLE

Hugh Freeze on Robert Conyers: "Robert is very, very valuable to us and will play three positions. He may be one of the most valuable pieces of us offensively because he can grasp all three of them and do them well."

Freeze on the center position battle having named Ben Still the starter: "They're pretty even and knowing that we're going to rotate Robert at all three on various possessions, it gives us a little more flexibility, but they're about equal. Robert probably needs to concentrate on both tackle positions between now and then and it gives the ones more reps with Ben."

Freeze on Fahn Cooper's action at left tackle: "He's athletic. It depends on who you're playing and what the matchups are. It's always about matchups. No matter who we put there, there are guys in this league, sometimes you're going to cringe when you get in too many one-on-one's, if you're not able to run the ball some. If they know you're throwing it, I don't care who we put out there. It's difficult, so you have to be balanced. That's been our whole goal since we have been here."

Freeze on Issac Gross, who missed practice with a neck injury: "Issac had the procedure yesterday to get some kind of shot that we think will help speed up the recovery and hopefully cure. We should know Monday if he will be ready to go for Boise."

Robert Nkemdiche on improvement: "Something that can make me stronger as a player is knowing the playbook a lot better. Last year, I feel like I had all the tangibles to be great, but I didn't know the scheme as well. I was out there about 50 percent. I didn't know what else to do. I was trying to go out there and make plays. This year, knowing the playbook a lot better and being more mature as a player and having an SEC season under my belt helps me because I know what to expect now."

Nkemdiche on returning to Atlanta for the season opener against Boise State: "It's a great feeling going back to the Georgia Dome. I started all four years in high school there, so let's go back and start one. We want to try to finish there too."

Dave Wommack on Mike Hilton practicing at both Huskie and cornerback: "Any time you have to double-train somebody, you lose a little something. You can't get totally focused on one thing, but he's a veteran and been here for two years and knows it better. You couldn't do it with a young guy for sure."

Wommack on the secondary: "I feel better about the secondary than I have in three years. I'm really pleased with the guys. We have some guys who can cover. We have some smart guys and can create different packages with those guys. This is one of better defensive teams that have been around the last couple of years."

Coordinators Talk Depth, Newcomers

Both coordinators have been pleased with the first couple days of practice as the Ole Miss football team looks to continue to develop more depth on both sides of the ball.

On offense, the discussion starts and ends with senior quarterback Bo Wallace, now more than a year removed from clavicle surgery and the rehabilitation that followed in 2013.

"It's like two different players," co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Dan Werner said. "He's so far ahead. The key is obviously making it all the way through the season, but last year at this time, he was barely coming off rehab. Now, he's not only done with all of that, but he's worked to get his normal strength and maybe then some. He's gained some weight, gotten bigger. He's excited and can't wait for the season."

Running back remains a crowded position, where juniors I'Tavius Mathers (95 carries, 563 yards, 3 touchdowns) and Jaylen Walton (113 carries, 523 yards, 6 touchdowns) are the leading returners, but they are being pushed by sophomore Mark Dodson, redshirt freshmen Eugene Brazley and Jordan Wilkins, and junior college transfer Akeem Judd.

"Two years ago, we basically had one tailback, and he knew pretty much he was going to be the guy," Werner said. "There was nobody else. Now, there's six of them in there, and every one of them is a good player. They're all going to have to battle. If one guy has a bad day, he knows he's probably going to be dropping down."

One of the areas Ole Miss looks to improve is third-down conversion (46 percent, 5th SEC) and red-zone conversion (74 percent, 13th SEC), and part of that is conversion in short-yardage situations. Enter Judd, the biggest of the backs at 6-foot-0 and 220 pounds.

"Today, in the pads, we didn't get a really good look because we're still not going live, but I was pleased," Werner said. "I didn't think we would be impressed with him when we're just in t-shirts, but he made some really nice moves. I'm excited to see when we got live and he makes a nice move, but then gets north and south and runs over someone. That's why we brought him in."

One of the key positions, as far as depth, is offensive line, particularly on the edges. Werner has been pleased with the competition there, but depth remains a concern.

"I like the athleticism of the guys," Werner said. "They are battling. The whole key to that is staying healthy. The depth is the issue. We feel like we have six, seven, eight guys who can really play and help us. If we get a couple banged up, then we have problems."

Junior college transfer Jeremy Liggins, Werner said, can be a really good player at tight end, as he competes for playing time there alongside sophomore Evan Engram and freshman Sammie Epps.

"He's definitely a natural," Werner said. "You can tell him to block somebody, and normally it takes weeks to figure how and where you place your hands and all that, and he just gets into them. He's so strong. He's so physical. And he's so athletic to be able to catch the ball too. It's just learning it. When he will get to that point, nobody knows. We will find out."

On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Dave Wommack said the depth is better than it's ever been and the talent level is up also. Two areas for improvement were defensive end and length at corner, and he's been pleased with the progress on both fronts.

"Defensive end, from last year, is a huge thing because we lost them all and we were thin," Wommack said. "We took care of a lot of that in recruiting and we add Fadol (Brown), and C.J. (Johnson) is back healthy and 100 percent. We added Marquis (Haynes) and some of those other guys. I see some good things out of the young guys. That's one thing. 

"And I wanted to see us get longer at corner and recruit longer at corner, and we have been able to do that. We need them to rise up and get some playing time. I love our corners. Some of them are short, and we wanted to get length at corner."

Among those younger players on the defensive line have been freshmen Breeland Speaks and Garrald McDowell.

"He got a little bit overweight, but he's kind of worked himself down," said Wommack of Speaks. "He's tough and he's a competitor. He's figuring out what college football is all about right now. There's no question he's going to be a factor here down the road. When, I don't know."

"He finds a way," said Wommack of McDowell. "He's a steady guy in there. He's tough. He's a competitor. He's really football smart on the field."

With length at corner, you look at sophomore Derrick Jones (6-foot-2, 182 pounds), as well as the additions of junior college transfer Tee Shepard (6-foot-1, 195 pounds) and Kendarius Webster (5-foot-11, 170). 

"He's improved a lot," said Wommack of Jones. "The biggest thing was, physically, he went against one of the best receivers in the nation all spring, and it made him better and made him see he that he had to get stronger. He got strong over the summer and he keeps on coming. I love his length."

"I don't think he's in shape all the way yet," said Wommack of Shepard. "I don't think he's had the conditioning he's needed, so he can't last very long, but the good, quality reps that I see from him are very positive. He has tremendous short-area quickness and has that knack that you want in your corner that's, 'Hey, send me the ball to me. I want the ball thrown to me.' We'll see the whole package here."

Overall, Wommack has been pleased with the freshman class, and no one has stood out more than DeMarquis Gates, a 6-foot-2, 211-pound linebacker from Hampton, Georgia.

"He can run, he's physical, he's tough, and he's smart," Wommack said. "He didn't play last year, so I really wasn't expecting what we have been getting from him. Each and every day, including today, he has shown up, so that's a good thing for us."

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