Senior quarterback Chad Kelly has been ruled out for the season following the season-ending knee injury he suffered in the Rebels’ 37-27 win over Georgia Southern on Saturday. Now the offense turns to either redshirt freshman Jason Pellerin or true freshman Shea Patterson.
If only it was that simple.
“Today, there are no options that are off the table,” Freeze said.
Ole Miss (4-5, 1-4 SEC) has three games remaining in the regular season. The Rebels next travel to face Texas A&M Saturday at 6:30 p.m. CT. The game will be broadcast by the SEC Network.
Pellerin is currently listed as the No. 1 quarterback in practice. Freeze said Monday at his weekly press conference Pellerin, who replaced Kelly in the third quarter, will take the majority of the first-team snaps this week in practice. Pellerin was 1 of 5 for 19 yards and an interception against Georgia Southern. He also rushed four times for 29 yards.
But mystery surrounds the status of Patterson, a former five-star prospect ranked as the No. 1 quarterback in the country by Scout.com for the recruiting class of 2016. Freeze had intended to redshirt Patterson all season. However, he remains undecided as to whether the redshirt will be removed with Kelly’s Ole Miss career abruptly over.
“That’s a very difficult thing to do this time of the year with three games left,” Freeze said. “All options are on the table. We’ve looked at Markell Pack to play quarterback. Evan Engram can throw. Hopefully Jason will stay healthy. I would rule nothing out at this point. That’s not something I want to rush to make a decision on. It would be difficult to do that. I wouldn’t rule it out. But I want to take my time, and we’re looking at all options.
“I’ve talked to all of our players, and Shea’s one of them. He’s ready to go. It’s not a decision that I can make out of emotion. You’ve got to really think through it. I think Shea, when the time comes, whenever that is for him to be playing, I think Shea is one of the most complete quarterbacks I’ve seen as a freshman. It would be hard-pressed, provided he stay healthy, for him to not be a starter here when that time comes.”
Along with Pack and Engram, Jeremy Liggins is another potential option as the emergency quarterback. What doesn’t appear likely is a return for Ryan Buchanan — a potential option raised by Freeze postgame of Georgia Southern. Buchanan played three seasons under Freeze, with his final season coming in 2015. He quit football in the offseason to focus on his studies. He's enrolled at Ole Miss.
“I haven’t called him yet,” Freeze said. “I think (Ole Miss QBs coach) Dan (Werner) maybe had a conversation with him. I probably shouldn’t have said that in the press conference. I want to do what’s best for everybody. I haven’t decided if that’s something we should do or not. I don’t know if he has interest. We’re thinking through every option.”
“I was just talking with coach Werner that I can get back in that pocket and make some good throws,” Engram said. “I’m willing to do whatever. I played quarterback all growing up, played some in high school. They’ve seen my arm a few times in my time here. Whatever I need to do, I’m willing to do it.”
Engram caught four passes for a game-high 75 yards Saturday, including his seventh touchdown of the season. He almost brought in another in the fourth quarter, but a nicely-thrown end zone attempt from Pellerin went through his hands.
For the season, Engram tops all tight ends in the nation in receiving yards and receptions per game. He’s already broken school records for catches and receiving yards by a tight end. But quarterback?
“I think I’m more of a runner. When things break down, I can get outside and make plays with my feet,” Engram said. “But it’s definitely a different level, so I’d have to see. But I think if I get in there and get comfortable and get calm, I can do both.”
Kelly finished his Ole Miss career with 25 schools records in not even two full seasons (22 games). He was the first quarterback to lead the Rebels to wins over Alabama, Auburn and LSU in the same season, and he totaled the third-most passing yards (4,042) and total yards (4,542) in SEC history last year.
He leads the SEC and is sixth in the nation with 343.3 total yards per game. He averaged 306.4 passing yards per game in his final season, and his 19 passing touchdowns are good for 21st in the nation.
“He had a difficult day yesterday,” Freeze said. “Last night he was doing much better. He was saying the right things last night. It will be difficult, I know, because he’s such a great competitor. (The team) will rally. They’ll handle it all. Chad, it was difficult for him to hear. He wanted to finish his journey here in a different way.”
“It hurts, man. It hurt me,” Engram said. “Both of them (Kelly and senior John Youngblood, out with a leg injury) are probably the two with the most pain, but the whole team is hurting. They’re two top competitors who mean so much to our team and so much to our locker room. You don’t imagine your last moments as a college football player to go out like that. It’s tough. Everything happens for a reason. Those two know that. They still have a role for our team. They’re huge vocal leaders, especially with Youngblood on the defensive side. We need more of those guys. We need him to step up even more now vocally, and Chad is definitely going to be important in his position room. Their playing days here are over, but they’ve still got a huge role in our team.”
Engram said he has confidence in both Pellerin or Patterson, whoever gets the call.
“I have so much confidence in both of them, even seeing Jason this Saturday come in unexpectedly,” Engram said. “You would think we would kind of run the score up and they’d get some time, but that was still a 10-point game, seven-point game when he came in. I was really impressed with how he came in and kind of managed. He wasn’t panicking or anything. He settled into the moment and got it done. He finished the game for us, and I think that’s huge for his confidence going into this week. Shea, seeing him make plays in practice and all through camp, if I didn’t watch him play football and I saw Shea play I would not think he’s a true freshman. I have the most confidence in both of them.”
Freeze said the travel squad is set Thursday morning, meaning a decision on Patterson in some form could come in the next few days. For now, the job is Pellerin’s, but stay tuned.
However, what won’t play into the decision is the heated debate on social media and message boards on wasting a year of eligibility on Patterson for maybe three, maybe four games, in 2016 and compromising a potential 2020 season. Freeze is only going to make what he believes is the right call for Ole Miss right now.
“I can’t foresee what’s going to happen that far down the road,” Freeze said. “You never know how things are going to play out. That doesn’t play into it to me. I just think you have to look at the whole scenario of what’s best for individuals and what’s best for the team and how many games are left. Do you want his first start to be in front of 115,000 at A&M? You want to set a kid up for success. We obviously believe he’s a super talent.”