After a spectacular junior season at Mississippi, Laquon Treadwell is training to be the first receiver taken in this month's draft. Maybe that's why he's always smiling.
After a long training day in Miami, Florida, Laquon Treadwell lingers on the field, trying to recruit an opponent for one more drill. At first glance, the game seems silly. Two people stand opposite each other holding a football in each hand, quickly passing them back and forth until someone drops a pass. Within minutes Treadwell turns a short line of friends into victims. Later he posts a video on his Instagram account, playfully crowning himself the champ. No coach or trainer ever told the former Ole Miss receiver that doing this drill would help him become a top prospect, but for years he's been inspired by stories of great players.
He knew that Hall of Famer Jerry Rice practiced catching bricks and that running back Walter Peyton ran hills, so he added some flavor to his workouts. His tactics have paid off -- he's been compared to Alshon Jeffery of the Chicago Bears and Dez Bryant of the Dallas Cowboys. At the end of the month, the Crete, Illinois, native will return to his home state, where he will likely be the top receiver in the 2016 NFL draft.
After announcing his decision to forgo his senior season at Mississippi, Treadwell took one week off. While flying home to spend time with family, he was often approached by college football fans. Many requested a selfie or wished him luck, but most just wanted to thank him. In three seasons, Treadwell — with the help of fellow pro prospects Laremy Tunsil, an offensive tackle, and Robert Nkemdiche, a defensive lineman—helped lift the Rebels from the bottom of the Southeastern Conference to national prominence.
As the top high school receiver in 2013, Treadwell's long list of scholarship offers included powerhouses such as Michigan and Alabama. He unexpectedly committed to Ole Miss, hoping to make an immediate impact. "I'm a unique athlete, and I always felt like being different would catch people's attention," Treadwell says. "It's easy to be good [at a school where] everyone else is good, but it takes a special group to try to change something."
Treadwell suffered a broken fibula and a dislocated ankle against Auburn as a sophomore, but he rehabbed his way back and helped lead the Rebels to 48--20 Sugar Bowl victory over Oklahoma State and a top 10 finish in 2015. His size and physicality (he's 6'2", 210 pounds) helped lead top the SEC in receiving yards (1,153) and rank third in receptions (82). Despite Rebels fans pleading with him to return for his senior season, Treadwell began training for the NFL.
Almost two months before the April 28 draft, Treadwell began training in Miami at Bommarito Performance Systems. In addition to working on improving his speed and quickness, Treadwell uses his time there mastering other skills that an NFL player needs. Typical days are filled with strict schedules meant to mirror a player's future as an NFL rookie.
"You have to be able to mentally sustain the long days and be able to lock in when you get to the next level," Treadwell says. "This kind of training helps you understand the lifestyle before you ever step into a team's facility."
Each morning Treadwell arrives at the facility at 6:30 a.m. He drinks a breakfast shake and then begins the day's drills. Much of the training is centered on preventative care. Meals are monitored, and massages and physical therapy are part of the regimen. Before Treadwell leaves in the early evening he meets with Pete Bommarito, who owns the training center, and asks him what else he can improve on.
Some days — when he's not learning about agent interactions or interview preparation — Treadwell will wander to the beach and float in the Atlantic, where the water acts as a salt bath, promoting recovery. That may sound nice and relaxing, but Treadwell seldom slows down. He grew up in suburban Chicago watching his mother raise six kids. So he knows the value of hard work. Even in quiet moments, when he's off the field or floating in the ocean, his mind is still hustling, thinking how he can get closer to his goals.
Though he's typically very calm and collected, Treadwell knows draft night will be emotional. Thinking about his teammates getting picked elicits one of his signature smiles. (He, Tunsil, and Nkemdiche have the chance to be the first trio of Ole Miss teammates ever selected in the first round in the same year.) But, somewhat surprisingly, Treadwell is also thrilled for his competitors.
He knows that players he's gone up against have worked just as hard as he has. "We all play with the same goals in mind," says Treadwell. "So you never want to hate on someone else for doing something great. It's respect all the way."
After Treadwell hears his name called and finds out where his new home will be, the night will eventually end and he'll turn his focus from the draft to succeeding as a rookie and fulfilling the goals he began setting years ago.
Then Treadwell got serious about football in middle school. He started playing wide receiver in high school. He started to track the top players at his position. He studied Bengals wideout A.J. Green, and then he got a good look at former Alabama receiver Julio Jones during his time at Mississippi. But Treadwell says he's never had an idol. He'd rather be his own kind of player, one who can thrive against the best players in the game.
If that's going to happen, Treadwell knows he has some hard days ahead of him. But he recognizes it's a privilege to play and is electrified by the challenge. Treadwell says his family's struggles and his injury continue to drive him. In tough times he thinks about when he was begging for the opportunity to get back on the field and compete.
"I want to get around some good guys and continue to learn from them, so the game gets easier for me as I get older," Treadwell says. "I'll go in and work for it just like I did in college. My freshman year I jumped right in. I took some hits, got rocked, and got put on my butt by the best. Eventually I became the best. That's what I'm looking forward to doing."
Most mock drafts have Treadwell going somewhere in the middle or end of the first round. What's most important to him is that he plays for a coach who sees his potential. And when the inevitable rookie road bumps emerge, he'll simply do as he's done before: put his head down and smile.
"It's going to be a beautiful thing to be drafted," he says. "But I know if I keep working hard I will put myself where I want to be. I'm just getting started."
Photos: Todd Rosenberg (workout gear), Thomas Graning/AP (action)