OLE MISS

Dome, Sweet Dome for Atlanta Area Rebels

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For high school football players in Georgia, all roads lead to the Georgia Dome and the state championships. 

For a handful of Rebels, those roads lead home, as Ole Miss opens the 2014 season against Boise State in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Classic at the Georgia Dome on Thursday night.

"It's huge for me," said sophomore tight end Evan Engram, a native of Powder Springs, Georgia. "Playing in the Georgia Dome, our high school career, our state playoffs are in the Georgia Dome. We never really made it to state, so actually getting there and playing in front of a big crowd at home in front of my family, coaches and friends is a big deal for me."

The Ole Miss roster includes nine players from the Atlanta area that will return there for a homecoming of sorts, including three projected starters in Engram, junior cornerback Mike Hilton from Fayetteville, and sophomore defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche from Loganville.

"Any time you can go back home where people who you were raised with can come see you, it adds a little something I'm sure," head coach Hugh Freeze said. "We recruit hard there, so hopefully some of those kids can come too. For our kids from that area, it means a lot to them to be able to go back home."

Nkemdiche, the headliner of the group and a first team freshman All-America selection, makes his return to the Dome, where he helped lead Grayson High School to a Class 5A state title as a junior.

"It's a great feeling getting to go back to the Georgia Dome," Nkemdiche said. "I started all four years of my high school (career) there, so it's great to go back and start one more is awesome. I want to try to finish there, too."

Engram was also a part of the Rebels' historic 2013 signing class, along with Nkemdiche, and became one of the first two true freshmen in school history, along with fellow sophomore Laremy Tunsil, to be named All-SEC. He missed part of last season with a high ankle sprain, but he's back to 100 percent and primed for a breakout season.

"Having Evan (Engram) down there and the matchups he creates with linebackers and things like that can be huge for us in the red zone this year," said senior quarterback Bo Wallace of Engram. "That's going to be huge for us if we can come away with touchdowns in the red zone."

Hilton, one of the elder statesmen of the group, will make his second trip to his home state in his college career, having played at Georgia as a freshman. He has bounced between cornerback and Huskie throughout his career, starting 16 games, but will likely play cornerback Thursday night.

"Mike Hilton is primarily at corner now," Freeze said. "Some of that would depend on what personnel we're facing. He's prepared to play both, depending on the personnel we get. You'll see him at both before the year is over."

Two freshmen are also expected to see significant action in linebacker DeMarquis Gates, a Hampton native, and cornerback Kendarius Webster, a Stockbridge native. 

Gates has impressed from the start of fall camp and will likely play a role on special teams, while Webster has been pressed into action as the primary backup at field corner with injuries in the secondary.

"He can run, he's physical, he's tough, and he's smart," said defensive coordinator Dave Wommack of Gates. "He didn't play last year, so I really wasn't expecting what we have been getting from him. Each and every day, including today, he has shown up, so that's a good thing for us."

"I'm really impressed (with Webster)," Hilton said. "I played him in high school, so I knew how he would play. He's really going to help us in the long run. He's still young. He's going to be a really good one for us."

Rebel Nation is known for traveling well, and the season opener is no different, especially for the family and friends of the Atlanta area players.

"I had to fight for tickets to get some people in," Engram said. "I have a lot of people buying them and a lot of people sending me 'good luck' texts, saying they'll be watching. Hopefully I see a couple of 'Go Evan' signs. It will be fun."

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