Getty Images

Dontario Drummond's 11 catches for 131 yards and three touchdowns in the 2017 Mississippi junior college state title game may have been considered a breakout performance by some. After all, the now-budding Ole Miss star had caught just one pass in a loss to the same opponent a month earlier during a freshman season at East Mississippi Community College season that started slowly.

But when EMCC coach Buddy Stephens reflected this week on that legendary outing from his former player, he offered an explanation that also rings true about Drummond's time with Ole Miss as Drummond and the No. 12 Rebels prepare to take on No. 1 Alabama on Saturday.

"If you go back and you look at that game, that was a big game," Stephens said. "But Dontario has always had that in him. It may have been a breakout game for everybody else, but Dontario's always been that guy."

What others have mistaken for passivity with Drummond is actually just patience, and that patience is paying off in a big way for the 24-year-old, who is enjoying a career season that could put him on the radar of NFL scouts if it continues on its current trajectory.

After ceding the spotlight to superstar Elijah Moore during his first two seasons with Ole Miss, Drummond leads the Rebels in receptions (20), yards receiving (339) and receiving touchdowns (4), and is emerging as an unassuming star in the slot receiver position for one of the nation's top offenses.

He's a player loaded with potential whose reserved personality has made his hot start to the 2021 season a surprise to outsiders. To his former coaches and current coach Lane Kiffin, though, there is nothing too shocking about the production Drummond is enjoying in his fifth season of college football.

"It's the place Elijah played last year," Kiffin said. "It sounds kind of basic, but you're closer to the ball, so it's easier to get you the ball than playing outside, especially with our splits. He's really made a bunch of plays, and [QB Matt Corral] has really gotten comfortable with him, so it's been a good combination."

Drummond's slow but steady progression toward the national stage is par for the course on his journey from tiny Laurel, Mississippi, to EMCC, to Ole Miss, and now into a starring role in the SEC.

"I think Dontario is just the kind of young man who is going to be successful in whatever he does because he's a mild-mannered guy who doesn't have to be in the spotlight all the time," Stephens told CBS Sports. "He doesn't have to have 100,000 followers on Instagram and Twitter. I don't think those things are things that he thinks about."

Even now, as he leads the team in most receiving categories, he remains the second-most famous player at his own position on the team behind John Rhys Plumlee. A former quarterback who also plays on the Ole Miss baseball team, Plumlee is now a reserve slot receiver. When asked during his radio show recently about Plumlee, Kiffin joked that he was surprised Plumlee wasn't the subject of the show's first question.

"We could score 77 points and have 1,000 yards, and it's, 'what's the deal with Plumlee'," Kiffin said. "He plays the same position as Drummond. Everybody says, 'well get this guy the ball,' but there's only so many. So if you want the ball to Plumlee, who do you want to take it away from? Do you want Drummond to catch less? He's doing pretty good."

So far in 2021, Drummond has given Kiffin little reason to take him off the field, even though his low-key demeanor keeps him somewhat under the radar among his own fan base.

At 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds, Drummond's frame is more typical of an outside receiver, which is where he began his Ole Miss career. When Kiffin arrived following the 2019 season, however, he moved Drummond to the slot. His size stands out at the position, but it is packaged with the usual speed and shiftiness of slot receivers. That's why he could pose a problem to the No. 1 Crimson Tide on Saturday.

In Florida's near-upset of Alabama two weeks ago, 15 of the Gators' 17 completions went to slot receivers or tight ends, exploiting the Crimson Tide for yards over the middle of the field. Kiffin also found success attacking the middle of Alabama's defense last season when Moore racked up 143 yards receiving on 11 catches against the Crimson Tide.

Drummond caught just one pass for 11 yards in that game, his lowest output of the 2020 season. However, over the last five games of the 2020 season, he caught 18 passes and began a streak that now stands at eight straight games with at least one touchdown reception.

"I feel like I'm a bigger body and make a bigger target," Drummond said. "I feel like I'm stronger and physical."

Drummond's rise to stardom in the SEC began with a breakout showing at East Mississippi Community College.  Getty Images

EMCC is known to many as a past subject of the Netflix documentary "Last Chance U," which depicts the rigors and rewards of the hardscrabble JUCO football life. When Drummond arrived in 2017, though, the show had moved on to film at another location. Even if the cameras had stuck around for another season, there's a slim chance Drummond would have been featured as a freshman.

Seven games into his first season at EMCC, he had just 11 catches while other future Division I receivers factored more heavily into the offense. Then came the late-season explosion highlighted by his three-touchdown performance in the state title win over a Northwest Mississippi Community College defense that featured future Power Five stars Josh Norwood (West Virginia) and Brandin Echols (Kentucky). 

Recruiting attention didn't pour in, though. Drummond received an offer from Arkansas and then-coach Chad Morris before his second season at EMCC, but it wasn't until after a standout sophomore season that Ole Miss finally offered. Drummond signed with the Rebels under former coach Matt Luke as the lowest-rated prospect among a group of five receivers in the Rebels' 2019 class.

"I think you really have to watch him practice daily to get the full Dontario experience," Stephens said. "You really have to watch him practice and sit down with him because he seems nonchalant. But he's not. He's just happy doing what he's doing, and getting that over to some of these college recruiters was hard. They'd come over and they would watch film, but sometimes some of these college recruiters are just hard-headed."

It took some convincing, Stephens said, but once Drummond's recruitment finally picked up, colleges began to realize the type of player he is.

"I think he just evolved in the offense," Stephens said. "It took him a little time. It's kind of the same maturation process that's gone on at Ole Miss. Last year, he didn't have a whole lot of targets. Now, all of the sudden, he's an NFL prospect. He loves doing what he does."

It remains to be seen just how much of an NFL prospect Drummond will become, but his versatility is appealing. With experience playing on the outside, in the slot and even lining up at tight end, a creative offensive mind will have no trouble getting him the football in space to show off his speed. But what sets him apart, according to those who have coached him, are his hands.

"He has the best hands of anybody that I've ever seen," Stephens said. "They are the strongest hands of anyone I've seen, including defensive linemen. I mean, he has incredibly strong hands, and they're huge hands."

Drummond developed a reputation at EMCC for making one-handed catches on footballs zipping from the Jugs machine at practice. Drummond's hands have a reputation that predates his college career, too. 

"He gives the appearance that he's really laid back," said Todd Breland, who coached Drummond at Laurel High School. "But he is ultra-competitive. He used to make one-handed catches in practice just to make me mad. He did it on purpose, and we'd laugh about it. But then he'd go out and make those same type of catches on Friday night. He would do it just to aggravate me, and he could. He could physically do that because he has enormous hands."

That's something scouts will take note of as Drummond creeps further onto the NFL radar this season. Though he may be considered old for a prospect by some, there were four 24-year-old receivers taken in the 2021 NFL Draft, and Drummond looks poised to keep the trend alive.

Kiffin believes that opposing defenses will eventually begin orienting their coverages to focus on Drummond. But even if they are successful in lining up lockdown defensive backs on Drummond before the snap, his physicality and hands should help him remain a factor in the Ole Miss attack. If nothing else, the attention he draws in the rest of the 2021 season should allow the wealth of other playmakers at Kiffin's disposal to shine.

Drummond is one of eight super seniors -- players using an extra season of eligibility made possible by the NCAA because of the COVID-19 pandemic -- in the Ole Miss starting lineup. The veteran edge is by no means a guarantee of success Saturday considering the relatively inexperienced Crimson Tide routed a similarly veteran-laden Miami team in Week 1. 

But the super senior factor is one reason Ole Miss is better equipped to challenge Alabama now than it was in 2020 as the unbeaten SEC West foes prepare to square off in the SEC on CBS Game of the Week. Of the group, it's Drummond who stands out most for the Rebels so far.

His patience is paying off, and the most rewarding dividends for it may still lie ahead.

"It's a joy to turn on the TV on Saturdays," Breland said. "You see the performances he gives, but you know the kid and you know what he's thinking and what he's been through to get there."