If someone had told Gilbert Pena two years ago he'd playing football in the Southeastern Conference in 2011, he admitted Wednesday, he never would have believed it.
However, the big defensive tackle from Brooklyn (ASA College), N.Y., signed with Ole Miss on Wednesday, one of four junior college players to fax in letters-of-intent to play for the Rebels.
"I'm just kind of speechless and overwhelmed at the situation," Pena said Wednesday afternoon.
The 6-foot-4, 315-pound Pena joined ASA College teammate/safety Ivan Nicholas, Iowa Western Community College quarterback Zack Stroudt and Copiah-Lincoln (Miss.) Community College cornerback Wesley Pendleton on Ole Miss' signing day list Wednesday. All four prospects are eligible to enroll at Ole Miss in January and go through spring drills.
Pena chose Ole Miss over Kansas State and Florida State after visiting all three schools earlier this month. He visited North Carolina earlier in the season.
"I had a lot of good schools competing for me," Pena said. "It was just the relationship that I built with the coaches. The fact that they were the first to offer me was important. I felt comfortable. I felt like I'd built a home there.
"It was big for me that I have an opportunity to play in the SEC along with some of the best players in the country."
Pena is expected to compete for a starting job replacing departed defensive tackles Ted Laurent and Jerrell Powe. Lawon Scott and LaMark Armour, who also saw significant playing time on the interior of the Rebels' defensive line last season, have also exhausted their collegiate eligibility.
"Right now, it's looking like it's my position to lose," Pena said. "That's what they told me. I know it won't be easy. There's going to be a lot of hard work and a lot of discipline. I think that's something I'm ready to take on and be a part of."
LESSONS LEARNED FOR NICHOLAS: Two years ago, Nicholas' failure to meet academic requirements prevented him from beginning his college career at South Florida. That disappointment proved to be a life lesson learned the hard way.
On Wednesday, when Nicholas signed with Ole Miss, he said he felt a wave of emotion "I can't even put it in words. I took that as experience. I didn't qualify because I didn't make my test scores and take care of my business. I now don't take anything lightly and I'm thankful for what I have. There's no looking back."
Like Pena, Nicholas is expected to challenge for immediate playing time at safety, where Johnny Brown and Fon Ingram graduated after the 2010 season.
"Right now, I'm excited," Nicholas said. "I'm just ready to get it going. The opportunity to play for Ole Miss is an opportunity is one I won't take lightly. It's an opportunity to play in the SEC at a big-time school."
DREAM COME TRUE FOR PENDLETON: Pendleton's stock at Copiah-Lincoln skyrocketed late this season when it became apparent he would be eligible to enroll in college next month.
Louisiana Tech and Ohio offered, but when Ole Miss got into the picture, the Rebels and the Natchez, Miss., native quickly got acquainted. Pendleton committed to Ole Miss on his official visit and then visited the campus again last weekend. Still, when he signed his letter-of-intent on Wednesday, it felt surreal, Pendleton said.
"It's real exciting to know I can play in the SEC this year," Pendleton said. "Today, it really hit me. The last couple of weeks it didn't feel real. It's reality now."
Pendleton, a 5-11, 180-pounder with excellent speed, is expected to challenge for the job left vacant by graduating cornerback Jeremy McGee. The position is one of the thinnest spot on the Rebels' roster entering the spring.
"I'll be working out with my high school coach and my former teammates and I'll be hitting it Jan. 23," Pendleton said.
WHIRLWIND COURTSHIP ENDS WITH STOUDT IN OXFORD: Stoudt was all but set on Kansas when Ole Miss called the 6-5, 225-pound quarterback during his official visit to Lawrence and extended a scholarship offer.
Within days, Stoudt was meeting with Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt in Iowa. Days later, he was on an official visit to Ole Miss, and on Monday, the son of former NFL and USFL quarterback Cliff Stoudt had committed to the Rebels.
"I didn't know how serious Ole Miss was, but once we met and I got the offer, it all went quickly and was something I wanted to do," Stoudt said. "The chance to be the starting quarterback in the SEC isn't something you turn down."
Stoudt is expected to compete with Nathan Stanley and Randall Mackey for the Rebels' starting job this spring. Stanley played sparingly in 2010, while Mackey redshirted.
"I grew up in Columbus (Ohio) and being around Ohio State and the Big Ten, frankly, you get sick of it, so this is a great feeling, and I'm just unbelievably excited," Stoudt said. "I know I've got work to do, but I'm confident I can win the job and make things happen.
I'm a passer, and I'm used to throwing the football. Most of my snaps have been out of the spread, but I think under center is easier -- with timing and footwork. I'll adapt to it quickly."
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