By Billy Watkins
By Billy Watkins
OXFORD — The challenge was issued last season to Ole Miss true freshman Quinshon Judkins by senior and fellow running back Zach Evans.
“I thought you were a man,’ Evans said to him.
“I am a man,” Judkins responded.
“Then go out there and show me,” Evans fired back.
On the next possession, Judkins answered with a 48-yard touchdown burst to put the Rebels up 14-0 in their SEC opener against visiting Kentucky. Ole Miss went on to win 22-19.
“But that wasn’t all of it,” said receiver Dayton Wade, who recently shared the story. “When Quinshon came back to the sideline, he didn’t yell or anything like that. He just said, ‘I told you I’m a man.’
“I’ll be telling my kids about that one day. I’d never seen anything like it.”
His teammates have been saying that a lot since Judkins enrolled at Ole Miss in January 2022.
“I remember he took a handoff on a play that spring and he hit the hole so hard,” recalled quarterback Jaxson Dart. “I looked back at (offensive coordinator) Coach (Charlie) Weiss and said, ‘This kid is different.’ ”
Now, the entire country has joined in. When the Associated Press Preseason All American team was released Monday, Judkins was named a first-team running back, along with Michigan senior Blake Corum. ESPN recently ranked him No. 22 in its top 100 players to watch.
After just one season, Judkins is the most nationally celebrated Rebel since Eli Manning
Born in October of Manning’s senior season, Judkins led the SEC in rushing yards (1,567) and touchdowns (17). He tied Bo Jackson for reaching 1,000 yards in his first eight games as a true freshman. Emmitt Smith did it in seven. CBS named him National Freshman of the Year.
He won the Conerly Trophy, awarded each year to the top college player in Mississippi.
“But with all the accolades and attention he’s getting, his work ethic has never wavered,” Dart said. “I think Quinshon has dreams of where he wants to go in life. He’s never satisfied and is always trying to improve. I expect even better things from him this season.”
Judkins, 5-foot-11 and 210 pounds, was a known quality running back out of Pike Road (Ala.) High School. Auburn, Tennessee and Michigan were among the schools that offered him. Ole Miss and head coach Lane Kiffin made him more of a priority.
And the recruiting services that rated him only a 3-star prospect after leading Pike Road to its first Class 5A state championship didn’t understand his preparation for college.
He was fortunate to play for Patrick Browning, a coach in his mid-30’s who still believes in the old-school ways of football. Work, work and work some more.
“Honestly, I wasn’t surprised at all by what happened last year,” Judkins said. “I knew coming in that I was well prepared to contribute to this team in a positive way. I’ve always believed in myself, so there was never any doubt that this would happen.
“And, again, it’s not so much the on-field stuff. It’s the behind-the-scenes work that I put in. It’s the things you do when no one’s watching that gives you that confidence and allows you to succeed.”
He seems to welcome the high expectations for the coming season.
“I don’t view it as pressure,” he said. “It’s the same game I’ve played all my life. I just go out there and play hard, have fun and strive to get better at my craft.”
It is intriguing to hear what experienced teammates thought the first time they saw Judkins in a football environment.
Wade, a senior who transferred to Ole Miss from Western Kentucky prior to last season, doesn’t mince words: “In spring practice, he was running over grown men who had been here for a while. He was making people look like little boys.”
Linebacker Ashanti Cistrunk, a fifth-year senior from Louisville who graduated in May with a degree in finance, said: “He was in my morning workout group when he first got here. And he was lifting as much as me. It was freaky. I’m not used to seeing a true freshman do that. I was thinking, ‘This guy has something to prove.’ ”
Sophomore right tackle Micah Pettus, another player from Alabama who earned a starting spot a year ago, noticed that Judkins “ran so angry.”
“Most running backs are going to try and make a defender miss,” Pettus said. “But not Quinshon. I mean, he might put his foot in the ground and go, but he doesn’t mind running over a safety and running through a defensive lineman.
“That’s what I like about him. He makes the offensive linemen look real good. He turns six yard runs into 60 yards. What lineman doesn’t want to block for a guy like that?”
Dart noticed during winter workouts that Judkins was pushing a blocking sled with the offensive linemen.
“That got my attention,” Dart said. “He’s a real good practice player, but he’s a gamer. He brings a different attitude and has a real energy about him on game day that uplifts the team and makes us want to play even harder for one another.”
Caden Prieskorn, a senior tight end transfer from the University of Memphis, first noticed Judkins’ explosiveness. “But the more I was around him, the more I could tell he’s one of those guys who just loves football and everything about it. Pretty impressive.”
NOTES: One mystery has been solved. The famous mustard bottle, one of the many objects thrown by Tennessee fans toward the Ole Miss bench in 2021, landed at the feet of Cistrunk. “I was so confused,” he said. “I was like, ‘What?!?’’ If only he had kept the mustard bottle, it might have been auctioned off or displayed somewhere in the Manning Center. “Now you tell me,” Cistrunk said, laughing.
***In addition to having a big season on the field, Dart hopes this is the year that fans, local and national, stop referring to him as a “California guy.” I told him posting his picture last offseason with a mountain lion he had bagged might go a long way toward it.
“I know why they might think I’m a Cali guy,” he said. “I played one year at (Southern Cal) and I always dye one little part of my hair in the back blonde. It hangs out the back of my helmet.” For the record, he’s a dirty blonde from Kaysville, Utah.
Dart doesn’t claim to be the best hunter on the team. “You need to talk to (center) Caleb Warren (from Nanih Waiya). The way he can call up a turkey, he deserves his own hunting channel.”
***Pettus (6-7, 360) had a solid redshirt freshman season but wanted to work extra on one thing: “I tended to drift on my pass set. When I got to the point, I wasn’t settling and stopping, like building a wall. It allowed the pocked to collapse sometimes. I’ve worked hard on that and really got after it in the weight room. I’m much stronger this year.”
***One of the most underrated — and most quotable — players in 2022 was Wade, who caught 27 passes for 309 yards and 3 touchdowns. Unlike Judkins, when Wade arrived at Ole Miss “I was just trying to survive.” But he got the coaches’ attention in preseason camp and earned his first start against Auburn in the season’s seventh game. “I was never saying, ‘Put me in.’ I was just chilling and waiting for the sun to come out,” he said. #############