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The last word: Slim and fit defensive tackle Jerrell Powe ready to power Mississippi

For six years, everyone else has had their say.

Now it's Jerrell Powe 's turn.

As the Mississippi defensive tackle enters his senior season, he's in the best shape of his life, he's on the verge of earning his degree and he's up for a handful of national awards.

His message to the people who said all those mean things about him over the years?

"Go buy a paper and read about the positive stuff now, and keep it positive," Powe said. "You hit the wrong guy. And go spread rumors about the good stuff like you were telling people about the bad stuff."

There was plenty of bad stuff.

Fans of rival teams picked up on a quote attributed to Powe's mother and spread rumors across the Web that he couldn't read. Critics of college sports said he didn't belong in the higher education system. Even the NCAA piled on, accusing him in a news release of using help to qualify, then forcing him to prove he could make it in college for a year before relenting.

It's been a long journey, one of the longest any college senior has had to undertake.

Was it worth it? A slimmed down Powe, who looks nothing like the tubby, uncertain guy who entered college as a 20-year-old freshman, says you had better believe it.

"I'm close to getting my degree, which is the most important thing in my life, and I'm close to obtaining my goal, and that's to play in the NFL," Powe said. "I don't know what the outcome will be but I'm close, so I'm excited to see what will happen."

So are the folks at Ole Miss. Powe is a nominee for the Outland, Lombardi and Nagurski awards. Some draft analysts list him among the top seniors at defensive tackle in the nation.

After all this time, Powe says he's ready to show he deserves all the accolades.

"To be honest with you, I should be able to hold up to the expectations," he said. "You can expect that. I don't mean to sound cocky or arrogant or nothing, but I feel like I'm working that hard, where I'm going to be the best defensive lineman in the country. That's what I want to be and I'm putting my grind in."

Powe entered training camp at about 317 pounds and hopes to be about 310 when the season starts. There have always been flashes of the athleticism and speed that made him one of the nation's most-sought recruits his senior season at Wayne County. He had all the accolades, appeared on all the lists. There's a story — perhaps apocryphal — that Bill Parcells said he was NFL-ready even as he was coming out of high school.

All that promise meant little, though, when he failed to qualify.

Powe never once wavered in his dream to play for Ole Miss and attended Hargrave Military Academy and took correspondence courses in an attempt to make grades. But the NCAA invalidated most of that work and Powe started a two-year journey to become a Rebel. He could have attended a junior college, but chose the more difficult path, a decision he does not regret.

That long journey, in fact, has fueled his desire even on the hottest days of summer, when he pushed through the end of every workout.

"It comes up when I don't feel like going very hard today or when we get to this drill and I'm out of gas," Powe said. "I always find myself pushing. When we get to conditioning and the time is 18 seconds but I know I can make it in 16, I get a little wind and I find myself saying, 'Naw, you got to make it in 16, you've got to be the best.'

"I use those things out there to keep me motivated."

He needed plenty of motivation to get his weight down to a reasonable level. He was 384 pounds when he first practiced with the Rebels three years ago, and carrying all that weight slowed him down. He dropped below 350 last year and started to show some of that promise. He finished with 12 tackles for loss, eighth in the SEC, and three sacks with 10 starts at tackle.

He had enough success that it fed an offseason workout frenzy, and Powe 2.0 is something to behold on the practice field. Consider the time he ran down Jesse Grandy, the Rebels' fastest player, on a reverse during spring practice.

"It wasn't shocking because last fall I actually saw Powe run down Devin Thomas in the open field," running back Brandon Bolden said of another of the team's fastest sprinters.

"He just ran him down," Bolden said. "He horsecollared him, but it was the fact that Powe went from a three-point stance, turned around and went and caught Devin. I've seen Powe do some amazing things. I've been hit by Powe. Powe just doesn't cease to amaze me."

What's it like to get hit by Powe?

"You ever been in a car wreck?" Bolden asked. "It's quite similar to a car wreck."

It's the anticipation of collisions like those that has made Powe a nominee for those major national awards. Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt says Powe's story alone is worth a trophy.

"Without question, where he came from academically just to get into school, the distance, the perseverance just to say, 'I want to be here, I want to make it,'" Nutt said. "I was worried about him just making it academically. But man, not any more. His name doesn't show up on lists, the professors like him. He's come 1,000 miles. Now he's one of our leaders."