Tunsil ready for whatever NFL draft throws his way

Published 9:41 am Thursday, April 28, 2016

OXFORD (AP) — Former Ole Miss left tackle Laremy Tunsil spent his final Saturday before the NFL Draft a couple of miles from his college home, signing footballs, miniature blue helmets and T-shirts while talking and posing for pictures at a local apparel store.

As a middle-aged man wrapped up his short conversation with Tunsil, he repeated a sentiment expressed by about a dozen other fans over the previous few hours.

“I’ll support you wherever you go,” he said. “But it sure would have been fun to make that short drive and watch you play in Nashville. I thought that was going to happen.”

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Tunsil nodded and flashed a wide smile as he handed a signed football back to the man.

The 6-foot-5, 310-pound left tackle isn’t going to sugarcoat it: He thought he was going to end up in Nashville, too.

But last week, Tunsil received a crash course in the business of the NFL.

The Tennessee Titans traded the No. 1 pick to the Los Angeles Rams, who will almost certainly want a quarterback with the top pick. The Philadelphia Eagles also moved up in a likely search for a quarterback, grabbing the No. 2 pick in a trade with Cleveland.

Suddenly, Tunsil’s future became a lot more uncertain.

“I’m human — it hurt,” Tunsil said. “Because (Nashville’s) the place you thought you would be going. Plus, it’s the No. 1 pick and they needed a left tackle. Your goal growing up is to be the first pick, so when they traded it, it hurts. But hey, it’s football.

“I just want to play football and I just want to get picked.”

That’s probably going to happen fairly soon on Thursday night when the NFL draft begins in Chicago. San Diego might want a left tackle with the No. 3 pick. The Jacksonville Jaguars at No. 5 or the Baltimore Ravens, picking at No. 6, are other possible landing spots.

Tunsil said he’s trying not to think too much about his future and just embrace whatever happens over the next week. Ole Miss offensive line coach Matt Luke says whoever drafts Tunsil is getting a potential franchise-changing player.

“He’s a good mixture of exactly how you would want to build an offensive lineman,” Luke said. “He’s not loud and he’s not cocky, but he’s extremely confident and thrives on competition.”

And then there’s his uncanny athleticism. It’s what made Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze comfortable calling a memorable play during this year’s Sugar Bowl, when quarterback Chad Kelly faked right and then turned to throw a lateral to Tunsil in the open field.

The 310-pounder deftly adjusted to the ball’s flight and caught it with ease, trotting into the end zone just before halftime as his teammates went nuts. It was a satisfying ending after a difficult season — Tunsil had to sit out the season’s first seven games after the NCAA ruled he received improper benefits, including the use of three loaner cars over a six-month period.

“That’s certainly the only touchdown I’ve ever thrown to my left tackle,” Kelly said. “But we had practiced that play so many times we were almost bored with it. I’ve watched him make one-handed catches in practice. He’s just an athletic freak.”

Tunsil said his ability to move laterally and keep up with defensive ends dates back to his high school days in Lake City, Florida. He was a post player on his basketball team and said he averaged about 15 points per game.

Freeze said that versatility has served Tunsil well.

“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone who can bend and move like he does,” Freeze said.

Tunsil’s pass blocking has been universally praised during his time at Ole Miss — he gave up just two sacks over a 28-game career. But there were some concerns about his upper body strength and ability to push people around in the running game.

Then he went out on Ole Miss pro day and did 34 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press — even surprising his coaches in the process. That mark would have tied for the top spot at the NFL combine in February.

Tunsil admits it was a proud moment.

“That’s the good thing about this sport — there’s always a chance to prove people wrong,” Tunsil said. “I love doing that.”