By Billy Watkins
We heard on a regular basis during preseason camp how Ole Miss’ Quinshon Judkins wasn’t performing like a normal true freshman.
Older players raved about the 18-year-old’s maturity, his work ethic, his ability to run the football.
“That boy is explosive,” said Zach Evans, a star running back who transferred to Ole Miss before this season from TCU. “He’s got a stiff-arm on him. He’s got a bright future.”
Then in the season opener against Troy, Judkins ran violently over and through defenders for 87 yards and one touchdown on 14 carries. Afterward, head coach Lane Kiffin said: “He ran angry today. He’s a special freshman.”
Nine games into the season, Judkins is still running angry. He leads the SEC and is tied for third nationally in rushing touchdowns (13). He ranks second in the league and seventh nationally in rushing yards (1,086). Judkins and Evans are one of the top one-two punches in college football.
In his most recent games,, Judkins went for 139 yards and two TDs against Auburn, 111 yards and two scores at LSU and 205 yards and one touchdown at Texas A&M.
Yes, he’s a bruiser at 5-11, 220 pounds. But he also has runs of 61, 48, 41, 36 and 34 yards.
At A&M last weekend, when the Aggies pulled within 24-21 with 9:11 left in the game, Judkins flashed his vision and strength to gut the defense for 61 yards on the first play after the ensuing kickoff. That set up his 1-yard score that sealed the victory on his 19th birthday.
No way Ole Miss is 8-1 and ranked 11th in the College Football Playoff poll without him. Judkins and the Rebels will play once-beaten Alabama Nov. 12 in Oxford with a lot on the line.
And watching Judkins right along with Rebel fans will be his hometown folks of Pike Road, Ala., a city of about 9,000 located just outside Montgomery.
“We are all so proud of him because we know the kind of young man he is,” said Chuck Ledbetter, who was Superintendent of Pike Road City Schools when Judkins was coming up. “Good student. Good family. And we’ve seen him put the work in to get to this point.”
Kiffin talked briefly about Judkins at his weekly press conference on Oct. 3: “You would not guess (how aggressive he is on the field) by being around him. He’s very calm, very quiet. The most unique (player) we had (at USC) was Troy Polamalu. He was unbelievable off the field. But then a switch would go on and he just wanted to knock out everybody on the field. ‘Q’ kind of reminds me of that. It’s neat. He was raised really, really well.”
We should have known after watching a few of his runs that there was something unique about Judkins’ story. Something that those vicious carries were rooted in.
Kiffin doesn’t allow freshmen to be interviewed.
Instead, meet Patrick Browning, 36, who coached Judkins from seventh through 12th grade. Pike Road School didn’t exist until the 2015-16 school year and went only through ninth grade. It added a grade each year after that.
“When I got there, they gave me two rubber footballs and wished me luck as the middle school coach,” he said. “I was young and naive and wasn’t going to let obstacles be an excuse.”
Browning took some planks out of a shed, found a few weight bars and barbells and built an outdoor weight station for his middle schoolers.
Browning put the players to work. He taught them how to practice and make it count, how to approach weight training, how to treat your teammates. Browning was applying old school lessons he had learned while playing for the legendary Danny Horn, who has won eight state Alabama championships and more than 300 games. Horn is a member of the Alabama High School Hall of Fame and continues to coach.
“Coach Horn is all about hard work and holding people accountable,” Browning said, “and that’s what I believe in, too.”
Browning became the varsity coach Judkins’ freshman season.
“I don’t mind telling you, I was hard on Quinshon throughout his career. He didn’t always like me because of it. But I did it because I loved him. Hopefully, he understands that now. If his shirt wasn’t tucked in, I’d tell him to tuck it in.
“I feel God speaks to me about certain kids. With some you have to put your arm around them. But with Quinshon, I believe I had to press him like that, even though he has great parents (Quincy and Teva Judkins).
“I knew how good he could be, and I didn’t want him to get to college and have culture shock. I didn’t want him to be overwhelmed by the quality of competition and the speed of game.
“You see a lot of these five-star recruits struggle their first year. Why? Well, did he practice hard, lift hard, be accountable?
“Quinshon Judkins had to do all those things. I guarantee you when he got to Ole Miss, he couldn’t have gotten any more push than he had already gone through.”
Recruiting services agreed that Judkins was a three-star prospect entering his senior season.
Ledbetter, who spent 18 years coaching football before becoming a superintendent, couldn’t understand their reasoning.
“I just thought, ‘What’s wrong with you people?’ ” Ledbetter said. “If you told me he was a four star instead of a five star, I might just say we have a difference of opinion. But a three star? Those people must not have gotten out a lot to see him.”
There is something to that. When COVID hit in 2020 — Judkins’ junior season — coaches and analysts didn’t get to see a lot of recruits play. It affected the rankings entering the 2021 season.
Still, the recruiting service Rivals rated him the top running back in Alabama and 28th in the country after he rushed for 1,482 yards as a junior.
Auburn, Tennessee and Michigan offered Judkins a scholarship in April before his senior year. Dozens of offers followed. He took only two official visits his senior year: He was at Notre Dame on Sept. 11 when the Irish defeated Toledo, 32-29, and in Oxford a week later when Ole Miss hung 61 on Tulane.
Judkins committed to the Rebels 11 days later and signed Dec. 15. He enrolled in January.
“Michigan was on him hard,” Browning said. “But their offense was totally different from what Quinshon was used to. I think he was looking for the offense that fit his skill set the best.
“Auburn — and I have two degrees from there — didn’t have the stability. Quinshon heard the chatter like everybody else that (Coach Brian) Harsin might be gone. He liked Notre Dame but there was chatter that (Coach Brian Kelly) might be looking.
“Ole Miss just checked a lot of boxes for Quinshon — consistency, proximity, a chance to play early. He liked the coaches.”
Browning’s Pike High offense was similar to Ole Miss’ with one notable exception: From his running back spot beside the quarterback, Judkins often received a direct snap.”
According to Browning, Alabama liked Judkins. “They simply recruited a running back they liked a little better. It was a numbers game,” he said.
Between his sophomore and junior seasons. Judkins transformed from a scatback to a powerful downhill runner.
“He has such a low center of gravity, great vision, and explosiveness within the first 10 yards,” Browning said. “It’s almost like he sees the defenders coming and he’s able to maneuver his body and doesn’t take a direct impact.
“We kept telling him, ‘Run as hard as you can, pick the right hole, lower your pads and run over one shoulder of the defender. Don’t take on a guy head on. When he started doing that, he went to another level.”
Browning, now the coach at Greenville (Ala.) High School, has a large photo on his office wall of the weight station he built seven years ago.
The players who first used it went 36-2 their final three years together and won the Class 5A state title last season. Media picked Pike Road to lose the championship game by two touchdowns against the mighty Pleasant Grove Spartans.
Final score: Pike Road 54, Pleasant Grove 14. Judkins rushed for 173 yards and three touchdowns.
Judkins told al.com postgame: “I’ve been part of the foundation. Just being here today, working our way up, means a lot to me.”
It meant a lot to Kiffin to be there, too. On a cold night, the Ole Miss coach stayed for the entire rout, which tells you how much he valued Judkins’ commitment.
“It went really late,” Kiffin said on the Oct. 5 SEC Media call. “You can’t see the kids until after they’re released from the game, so I just remember being there a really long time and just being really impressed. He had a ton of carries that night, put the team on his shoulders and won the state championship. It was pretty cool to see.”
Ledbetter believes that was an important move by Kiffin to be there and stay throughout.
“Kiffin really wanted Quinshon, and he made him feel wanted by being there,” Ledbetter said. “Everybody could see that Quinshon is a great runner. But he also has an infectious personality and a mentality that says, ‘All I know how to do is win.’ He took that attitude to Ole Miss.”