Photo by Hays Collins

By Billy Watkins

         A couple of months after transferring from Southern Cal to Ole Miss in 2022, quarterback Jaxson Dart  joined offensive lineman Caleb Warren and a few others for a wild pig hunt on teammate Eli Acker’s family land near Oxford.

       Dogs were running a pig their way, and once the pig was bayed, one of the hunters raced toward it and stabbed the pig in the heart with a Bowie knife.

       “Jaxson had never killed one,” said Warren, whose nickname is Buckshot. “I’d never killed one, either.”

       Both consider themselves accomplished hunters, but they were impressed by what went down. To experience it, discuss it and tell the story to others … well, that’s one of the things that helped a quarterback from Kaysville, Utah and a lineman from Nanih Waiya become fast friends.

       Dart and Warren have been key components to the Rebels’ success over the past two seasons as the quarterback-center duo.

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       They’ll be in the thick of it Saturday as 10-2  Ole Miss (No. 11 in the college football playoff rankings) battles 10-2 Penn State (ranked 10th). And this Rebel team is shooting for history. No Ole Miss squad has ever won 11 games. It’s been a prime motivator for the players leading up to the matchup in Atlanta.

       But back to some hunting adventures for a moment.

       Dart said last summer that Warren deserves his own outdoor TV show.

       “The guy can do it all,” he said. “He can call up a turkey like nobody I’ve ever seen.

       “He’s a 300-pound dude. And during one hunt (in Utah), ww were Army crawling to get closer to a turkey. I could barely stay with him. I’ve never seen a big guy move like that.”

       When I passed along Dart’s comments recently, Warren chose to take it easy on his buddy: “I will say that it was hot. Probably 80 degrees. And we had to crawl about 150 yards across a big river bank. There were rocks everywhere. Basically, it was miserable.”

       Warren paused.

       “Uh, did he tell you that he missed that turkey?” he asked.

       Hmmm, he did not.

       “Yeah. Shot at it and missed from 30 yards,” Warren said.

       And does he ever bring it up to his quarterback?

       “A bunch!” Warren said, laughing.

       Dart can take it. He’s killed enough big game in the mountains of Utah to maintain his confidence.

       Warren calls their friendship an example of “the power of football.”

       “We have these players from all over the country coming together to be part of a team, all trying to get on the same page and do something special,” he explained.

       It’s an example of how Ole Miss and head coach Lane Kiffin have been able to blend current players with portal transfers and make it work better than most.

       “We spend a lot of time looking at the person and asking ourselves, ‘Will he fit in here?’ ” Kiffin said earlier this season.

       Dart has more than fit in. He’s become a leader and one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC.

       Warren had already gone through a redshirt year when Kiffin arrived before the 2020 season. He had helped lead Nanih Waiya to a state championship his senior year, in 2018.

       “My recruiting was going pretty slow, actually,” said Warren, rated a three-star recruit out of high school. “But about two weeks after we won the state championship, I was sitting in a tree stand deer hunting and got a text from Ole Miss.”

       His redshirt season was a rough one for the Rebs — 4-8 overall, 2-6 in the SEC.

       Then came Kiffin and COVID. The Rebels managed to go 5-5 playing an all-SEC schedule. Warren earned a starting position at guard.

       Warren started at guard again in 2021 when Ole Miss went 10-3 and earned a trip to the Sugar Bowl.

       Warren moved to center in 2022 and the Rebels have won 18 games over the past two seasons. He was voted third-team All-SEC this year.

       “I was happy about moving to center because it has helped me show NFL scouts that I’ve got some versatility about me,” Warren said. “Being able to play multiple positions is probably my best shot to make the league.”

       He’s also shown durability. He is scheduled to make his 44th career start in the Peach Bowl.    

       He plans to add to that total. Warren has decided to return in 2024. So have many of the starters from this year’s team, though Dart and running back Quinshon Judkins won’t tip their hands until after the bowl game.

       “We had some guys play hurt this year and didn’t have as good a year as they’d wanted to,” Warren said. “And then the (2024) playoffs expanding to 12 teams definitely played into it. Everybody is buying into the culture we’ve built here and we all want to go after a national championship next year.”

       He credits Kiffin for “making it fun to come to practice every day.”

       “(Kiffin) has brought in some really good coaches and he’s created a great environment,” Warren said. “We’ve won a lot of games and players want to be part of that.”

       As for Penn State, a 5-point favorite, the Rebels are aware of the Nittany Lions’ storied program and the problems this year’s team causes opponents.

       “They’ve got the No. 1 defense in the country,” Warren said, “and they have a lot of good players doing a lot of good things at the same time. It’ll be a challenge, but it’s fun to play somebody new.”