Freshmen starters stepping into important roles for Auburn, Ole Miss
AUBURN, Ala. -- Those prized recruits at Auburn and Mississippi are already key figures in the programs' efforts to climb the SEC West ladder in their first season.
The 24th-ranked Rebels have started five freshmen heading into Saturday night's game with the Tigers, led by defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, wide receiver Laquon Treadwell and safety Tony Conner.
Auburn is relying heavily on defensive linemen Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel and wide receiver Marcus Davis among others.
Auburn coach Gus Malzahn and his Ole Miss counterpart, Hugh Freeze, haven't been bashful about throwing the youngsters into the Southeastern Conference fire as they rebuild their programs.
"I think it says that myself and Hugh, we're not scared to play freshmen right off the bat, especially if they're talented enough," Malzahn said. "You'll see quite a few on both sides."
Some of it's out of necessity with deficiencies in depth or talent. Other players like Nkemdiche and Adams might be just too good to keep off the field.
Nkemdiche has started every game on the defensive line, moving from end to tackle at least temporarily for the Alabama game.
He and Georgia's Leonard Floyd are tied for second among SEC freshmen with 4.0 tackles for loss behind only Vanderbilt's Adam Butler (4.5). Adams is a backup defensive tackle but leads the Tigers with five quarterback hurries and has a sack.
Those two are among five freshmen collectively who were ranked among the top 21 players in the 247Sports composite rankings of the major recruiting sites. Nkemdiche was the nation's top recruit and started at a new position against the nation's top-ranked team.
"He's a very strong, tough guy to move around," Freeze said. "He played really solid for a game of that magnitude. To be a true freshman, he did really well."
The "for a true freshman" sentiment is likely to be a familiar refrain for both teams, but Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said Nkemdiche stands out.
"He's a big man. He's already physically ready to play at this level and you can see, he's making plays," Johnson said.
Treadwell was 14th on that composite list of prospects and was also an immediate starter, leading the Rebels with 20 catches. He ranks second among SEC freshmen in receiving yards per game and Ole Miss freshman tight end Evan Engram is third.
Auburn's Davis wasn't as highly recruited as Treadwell but his 10 receptions are third on a team that was in desperate need of quick help at the position and even more so with the season-ending injury to starting receiver Jaylon Denson.
He had catches on three consecutive plays during Auburn's game-winning drive against Mississippi State.
"Marcus Davis has had a fantastic attitude," Tigers offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. "From the third practice of fall camp you knew he was going to help us. I didn't know if he'd start, but you knew he was going to help us because of his attitude, the way he attacks practice, the way he listens. If you correct him on something he doesn't make the same mistake twice.
"Young guys are like that. They are really coachable because they don't know any better."
Fellow freshman Tony Stevens had his first two career catches against No. 10 LSU.
For Ole Miss, Conner's 21 tackles are second among SEC freshmen. He had an interception on his first collegiate snap against Vanderbilt and has started all three games since.
Laremy Tunsil started at left tackle in the Texas game.
Auburn's other top defensive line signees, ends Carl Lawson and Daniel, have both played in every game.
Both freshmen groups are dealing with their first college defeats. The Rebels fell to No. 1 Alabama while the Tigers lost to LSU two weeks ago before an open date.
Their maturity and resilience will be put to the test.
"One of the things about our program that I hope our kids see is our coaches just don't blink," Freeze said.