Rebel head coach Hugh Freeze didn’t provide much clarity on a quarterback competition that has been ongoing since spring practices in April, though he did say a decision will come “tomorrow, for sure.”
“Today would be a different starter than what I thought yesterday,” Freeze said. “I think that’s a good thing. It wasn’t that the other played quite as bad, just had a few inaccurate throws and the other guy throws it really well. Like I’ve said before, I expect all three to get snaps and ultimately who’s going to be the quarterback is going to be decided by what they do on Saturdays.”
The competition is down to Kelly and redshirt sophomore Ryan Buchanan. Kelly took the majority of the first-team reps in practice last week, and he also ran with the first team in the viewing periods allowed to the media Tuesday at practice.
Devante Kincade appears to be in line for playing time no matter what. Freeze said the coaching staff has a special package designed for the redshirt sophomore, who stands as the best runner of the three.
“I don’t know. After tomorrow we’ll make a final decision. I said this week, regardless of what was printed outside the room, not you guys, I said that as of today (Kelly) is taking the snaps with the ones, and if this week continues that way, he’ll do that on Saturday. Was enough done by the end of tomorrow to change that? I don’t know. We’ll collectively make a decision. Ultimately it’s me.
“I’ve got a package I really like with Kincade. Ryan and Chad are kind of in the other mode. All three can do some good things.”
Freeze said all three have handled the competition pretty well - at least in front of him.
“They’re just like all of us. We’re human. You want the job,” he said. “I just believe all three have earned the right to have a chance. We’re going to see how they function when the live bullets are going.”
They’ll get their first chance against the Skyhawks. Kickoff is set for 11 a.m. UT-Martin is 1-18 all-time against FBS teams, with its lone win coming over Memphis in 2012. The Skyhawks are 0-5 against opponents from the Southeastern Conference. They finished 6-6 last season.
Freeze said he’s more anxious for this game than he was for more accomplished opponents in openers, such as Boise State in 2014 and Vanderbilt in 2013.
“You know what people’s perception is of what this Saturday should be,” he said. “You’re never quite sure what your team’s going to do on opening day. We’ve got a new quarterback, or quarterbacks.
“I’m probably more uptight about this one. Your mind is not your friend. Coaches can talk ourselves into believing most anything. (UT-Martin) plays tough against SEC opponents. I’d rather open like we have the last few games and have our FCS opponent down the schedule a bit, but this was done long before I got here. But we got to do it. It’s my job to get them ready.”
Freeze has a number of things he’ll be looking for in the game, namely marked improvement in the Rebel rushing attack.
“Very few negative plays, if any, in the run game,” Freeze said. “I’d love to see a couple of explosive runs, those 20-yarders. That would be really nice, and just run good enough for us to be balance. That’s all I’ve ever really wanted. I’m not hung up on how many (yards) we have to rush for a game, but you have to be effective enough to where teams have to honor both. It would certainly be a big bonus to us if we could create some explosive runs pretty much every week.”
He’ll also keep a close eye on the Ole Miss wide receivers. The group, led by junior star Laquon Treadwell, has had a good week of practice.
“They’ve had a good week,” he said. “Camp was still some inconsistency. We’ve continued to preach them the expectations of that room. They’ve had a better last week. I know Laquon has. He’s feeling more and more comfortable. He was running routes really high the first couple of weeks. He’s looked good this last week, as has (Damore’ea) String(fellow) and Cody (Core), and Markell (Pack) has done some really good things, too.”
* Freeze said Ole Miss has already had a discussion with freshman wide receiver Van Jefferson about redshirting. Barring the unforeseen, Jefferson, a former four-star prospect, certainly won’t play Saturday. It’s not for a lack of talent; the Rebels are simply loaded at the position. “Boy, he’s going to be really good,” Freeze said. “He’s as good as some we’re playing now, but again, he could sure use a year in the weight room, too.”
* Cornerback Cam Ordway is in a similar boat as Jefferson. In any other season, the four-star signee would be all but assured of playing time, but Ole Miss has some depth with starters Tony Bridges and Ken Webster, followed by juniors Tee Shepard and Kailo Moore, who dealt with a hamstring injury in camp. He’s good to go for UT-Martin. “You don’t know how you’re going to be health-wise,” Freeze said. “He’s going to be a really good player, but if everybody stays healthy, he’s going to get a limited number of snaps. That’s not worth burning a year on.”
* The redshirt conversation is a delicate balance for a head coach, especially with freshmen who were highly-ranked prospects and signed on with a school expecting to play. Freeze said that while there’s some trepidation at first, most players come around to the idea in time. “Initially, there’s always a little uncertainly. They don’t always know what that means,” he said. “But then after a couple of days, most see that, hey, the worst thing that can happen to me is I can five years of education. Most end up handling it pretty well. They want to play. They’re used to play. They’re used to playing a lot.”
* Of the freshmen, only two appear as locks to play in the Rebels’ season opener: Zedrick Woods and Javon Patterson. Patterson is slated to start at left guard. Freeze also mentioned DaMarkus Lodge, but Freeze said he’ll soon have to sit down and have a conversation with the former five-star recruit and his parents. We’re back to the redshirt topic again. “It’s not ability or talent. Him and Van both. You throw them out there in week one and two and three, and all of the sudden everybody’s stayed healthy and they’ve gotten, what, 15 reps? Even though they’re quality and they can play, is that what’s best for them long-term?”
* Cornerback/do-it-all special teamer Carlos Davis has practiced in full this week despite recently suffering a broken finger, which one would assume would limit him in his punt and kick return duties. Not so fast. He’s handled the assignments all week, and Freeze said he’ll do the same against the Skyhawks. “We’re going to find out,” he said. “He looked good in practice, so we’ll give him a shot to do it.”
* One of the big concerns for the coaches has been deep snapper. Ole Miss was spoiled by the every-year consistency of Will Denny, as steady a snapper as you’ll find. Will Few has won the job, and he’s done so through his excellent times and good accuracy. Now comes real football. How does he handle himself once he’s hit in the mouth, so to speak? Stay tuned.
* Walk-on tight end Dawson Knox has drawn rave reviews in camp. The 6-foot-3 1/2, 235-pound Knox is going to redshirt, but we were told the coaching staff is really high on him. They see him as a good athlete with good speed, and he reminds them a lot of star Rebel tight end Evan Engram. Ole Miss can only hope he’s that good. Regardless, he looks like he’s going to be a player to keep an eye on for in the future.
* Senior safety Mike Hilton was in a green non-contact jersey all last week. No word on what was ailing the preseason All-SEC selection, who tied for 10 in the SEC with three interceptions last season. The good news, though, is he was out of the jersey this week.
* Ole Miss practiced in powder blue helmets today. The plan is for the Rebels to wear them occasionally to break them in for when they roll them out against Vanderbilt.
* Senior left guard Aaron Morris is coming along. Morris suffered his second torn ACL last season. “He’s coming,” Freeze said. “He’s gotten better, but he’s still a little bit behind Javon right now. They’re all going to play, man. We need them all. We’re still not deep enough there. We’re going to need them all there, and Aaron’s a big part of that. He’s a guy who’s played a lot of games. I think he’s getting more confident on his knee. I’m anxious to see him in a game Saturday.”