The University of Mississippi made waves in 2005 with the signing of prep superstar Michael Oher. He became an All-American, a first-round selection in the 2009 NFL Draft and had his life replayed in the best-selling pages of Michael Lewis' novel The Blind Side, which of course was optioned to the big screen in a feature film of the same name. Another highly touted lineman who signed with the Rebels in 2005 made the more immediate impact.
Defensive tackle Jerrell Powe was a five-star recruit who turned down LSU and Auburn to sign with Mississippi. Coming off a high school senior season in which he registered 89 tackles, nine sacks and five forced fumbles for Wayne County in Waynesboro, Miss., Powe was thought to be a sure star on the fast track to the NFL.
|Jerrell Powe (right) took a long road to Ole Miss, but is still staying for his four years. (US Presswire)|
After signing with what was Ed Orgeron's Ole Miss program at the time, Powe wasn't allowed to enroll. The NCAA determined that he had not passed the required 14 core classes at Wayne County.
Determined to earn his eligibility, Powe transferred to Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia for a year. His grades and test scores improved. However, the NCAA determined that his gains in 2006 were made with too much help from others. As a result, Powe was declared academically ineligible yet again.
A lawsuit against the NCAA gained him notoriety -- it has since been dropped -- but not eligibility. Powe moved back to Waynesboro. There, he was diagnosed with dyslexia, re-took core classes at Waynesboro and enrolled in additional correspondence classes at Penn Foster Career School, which is based in Pennsylvania. Powe did this while supporting himself by working at a local jail.
Powe remained focus on his goal: returning to the field.
"It was a long, hard fight, but I never lost sight of what I wanted to do," Powe said in a telephone interview. "I've always wanted to play college football and try to play at the next level. Every time someone told me I couldn't do this or that, it just made me work harder."
Better suited to deal with the daily challenges presented by being a student with dyslexia, Powe re-enrolled at Mississippi in 2007. The NCAA once again found him to be academically ineligible to compete in games. However, his progress was rewarded. Powe was granted financial aid, allowed to attend classes in Oxford and practice with the football team.
Finally, on July 28, 2008, Powe was given the news he'd been waiting three years to hear: He'd fulfilled all NCAA entry requirements and could fully participate in the 2008 season for Ole Miss.
By that time, Orgeron had been replaced by Houston Nutt as the head coach. Nutt, not surprisingly, said in a statement that he was "excited" to have Powe on his roster, but considering his new defensive tackle's past, the coach couldn't have been sure if he could rely on Powe to remain eligible.
Two years later, Nutt raves about Powe's determination.
"Jerrell Powe is a wonderful story," Nutt said during July's SEC Media Day. "To me, that's what college football is all about. What you love about him is his perseverance. Anybody could have given up. Anybody could have stopped after the first time or second time or third time when he couldn't get in school, but this guy kept going."
"Kept going" is an apt mantra for the way in which Powe was able to transform his body, as well as his mind.
When Nutt first met him, Powe weighed 383 pounds. Powe says he was never heavier.
Weighed after practice on Aug. 8, Powe weighed 313 pounds.
Said Nutt, "[Powe] has a real drive. He has drive for excellence, whether it be in the classroom, on the football field, the weight room. This guy is a real leader. That's why he's [at the SEC Media Day]. I just love that guy.
"He's got a heart bigger than Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, and he's going to be a tremendous ambassador for Ole Miss no matter what happens in the next five, 10, 15 or 20 years."
Powe appears well on his way toward carrying the Ole Miss banner into the NFL, just as some of his good friends -- Peria Jerry, Jamarca Sanford and Oher -- have in recent years.
Rated by NFLDraftScout.com as the third senior defensive tackle prospect in the country and the best senior prospect regardless of position in the SEC, Powe is a legitimate first-round prospect.
While his talent was obvious even as he earned scant playing time in 2008 (eight tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss), it wasn't until last season that Powe was able to prove on the field that the hype surrounding him entering college had been warranted. Despite facing consistent double-team blocking in the middle, Powe registered 34 tackles, including tying for the team lead with 12 tackles for loss -- the sixth-best total in the conference. He also had three sacks, doubling the total he posted a year earlier.
At 6-2, 313, Powe possesses the short, squatty frame NFL scouts are looking for in a run-plugging defensive tackle. Boasting long arms and great upper-body strength, he's so tough to move that many teams feel he'll be able to compete immediately at defensive tackle or play the nose in the 3-4 alignment.
Powe's breakout junior campaign in the mighty SEC guaranteed NFL dollars were now within grasp. Rather than leave Ole Miss early as many expected -- and few could balk at because of his age and personal struggle to reach this stage of his career -- Powe elected to return for the 2010 season.
He says he never considered leaving school early. He didn't even ask the NFL Advisory Committee for his projected grade. He didn't have to. Now that he was officially an Ole Miss Rebel, Powe wasn't going to waste any eligibility.
"No, most definitely, I was not going to leave early," Powe stated emphatically. "I've worked too hard to leave early. I've always said I want to be that top guy. I'm going to stay at Ole Miss until I don't have any years left. I'm not one of those guys that is here just to flash and try to make a couple of bucks. I work hard at my craft. I want to be the best."
Powe recognizes that with only one standout season, he still has a ways to go to impress scouts.
"I hope [scouts] will see that by coming back for my senior year that I'm a team player," Powe explained. "I'm not out to be selfish. I'm not saying that other guys who left early were selfish. They made their own choices for what was right for them and their families. For me, though, there was no doubt. I'm a team player. Whether it is here at Ole Miss or in the NFL, I'm going to put the organization first."
Ridiculed by some for his academic struggles, Powe's story is one of endurance both on and off the field. It might not become the basis of a book or Hollywood script, as with former teammate Oher, who was picked 23rd overall by the Ravens in 2009. But with a strong senior season, Powe might be a higher draft pick.