Shea Patterson

Shea Patterson didn't expect to get his first start until next season, but an injury to Chad Kelly opened the door

Shea Patterson shut off his phone Saturday night. The true freshman Ole Miss quarterback had just led the Rebels to a come-from-behind win over No. 8 Texas A&M. He knew the tidal wave of calls and texts to come.

He needed time to collect himself. Patterson doesn’t fit the prototype of the rising star quarterback, at least personality-wise. Because the rocket arm, flawless footwork and accuracy and off-the-chart intangibles and makeup are there. But he’s unassuming and soft-spoken. He admitted he keeps a small circle socially. The some 300 text messages he received after the dust had settled following the 29-28 thriller at Kyle Field were a little more than he could handle.

Such is life as QB1. 

“It was a little surreal,” Patterson said of the week that was. “I didn’t think I was going to take my first start ‘till next year. It wasn’t about the redshirt, like I said, it was just always about the team and we did what we did to prepare for the game.”

Patterson is the first freshman to start at quarterback for Ole Miss since David Morris in 1998. And, like Morris, Patterson was only starting due to an injury in front of him.

Butt Patterson’s debut compared to Morris couldn’t have been any different. Morris, starting in place of an injured Romero Miller, completed 8 of 24 passes for 75 yards and three interceptions in a loss to in-state rival Mississippi State at home. Patterson? He was 25 of 42 for 338 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, and he rushed 15 times for 64 yards. He's the first true freshman quarterback in school history to win in his debut.

Shea Patterson/Associated Press

True freshmen, in their first career start, aren’t supposed to have the success Patterson had. Not immediately. Not typically. But Patterson is no ordinary quarterback. No, Patterson is a former five-star prospect and U.S. Army and USA Today All-American. He was a near-consensus ranked No. 1 quarterback in the 2016 class. 

So, naturally, he engineered a 23-point fourth quarter and a win few, if any, saw coming. In front of over 100,000 fans. Fans that included countless friends and family — from his mom, dad and uncles, to cousins, his girlfriend and a sister who drove over from San Antonio.

“I never really felt pressure,” Patterson said, “but having that (offensive) line in front of me, having those receivers out there making plays really made my job a lot easier. Defense played lights out in the second half. The people I had around me, the support I had around me, the coaches, (Ole Miss head) coach (Hugh) Freeze and (co-offensive coordinator and QBs) coach (Dan) Werner preparing me all week like I was the starter, that really helped.”

The decision to start Patterson was, publicly, difficult for Freeze. In an obvious act of gamesmanship, he talked up backup Jason Pellerin all week, as well as potential emergency options such as Markell Pack, Evan Engram and Dawson Knox.

Privately, however, the plan was always to start Patterson. Senior starter Chad Kelly suffered a season-ending knee injury in the Rebels’ win over Georgia Southern. The next day, Freeze was on the phone with Patterson and his family. As long as they were good with it, the redshirt was coming off.

Hugh Freeze and Shea Patterson/USA Today Images

As a thank you, all the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Patterson did was set Ole Miss records for passing yards and total yards (402) in a single game by a freshman.

“Just out there in Kyle Field, first start, it did take awhile (to get settled),” said Patterson, who facetimed with Kelly Saturday morning. He said Kelly told him to go out, do his thing and let the game come to him. “But once I got settled in there at the end of the second quarter and the second half (it) felt like I was out in high school.”

“I’m going to do what’s right for the kids,” Freeze said of the ultimate decision to play Patterson. “I did what I knew in my heart was right for the program and the team. As long as Shea and his parents were OK with it, I cannot look at those seniors and tell them I’m not going to give you the best opportunity to win your last three games. If it hurts us years from now, so be it. That’s what the decision is. I really believed we had an opportunity to win every game we have left. Shea, in my opinion, gave us the best chance to do that. How do you look at Evan Engram and D.J. Jones in the eye and say, ‘Hey, you did a good job, but we’re not going to give you the best chance to win.’ This is big boy football. Shea gave us the best chance to win.”

Ole Miss is 5-5 (2-4 SEC) on the year. The Rebels next travel to face Vanderbilt (4-6, 1-5 SEC) Saturday at 7 p.m. CT on the SEC Network. And for the first time in weeks, the atmosphere around Rebel football is overwhelmingly positive. Freeze spoke of a “joyous” postgame locker room after Texas A&M. He could have very well been talking about his fan base.

Patterson will never admit it, or even acknowledge it, and neither will Freeze, but Shea Patterson is the reason why.

“It’s been great all year,” Patterson said of team atmosphere. “But to be able to go out there and win like that at Texas A&M and to be able to celebrate with your teammates and get momentum going into next week and hopefully finish out the season well and have that momentum going into next year, that’s a great feeling.”

Patterson Extras

On what was on his mind during Gary Wunderlich’s game-winning kick: “I said just go out there and have fun, don’t think about it and just kick it. He told me after the game he doesn’t like people talking to him when he goes out there, but I said a quick prayer. I thought about not watching, but I had to watch and kind of fell down there a little bit and have fun at the end.”

On what his teammates told him before his last drive: “They didn’t really tell me anything. The thing that sparked me was when I threw that interception. The whole defense came and talked to me, said it was OK, they’re going to get the ball back and that’s what really changed my mindset.  These guys are behind me and I have a great support staff and that’s what really gave me the confidence in the second half.”

Shea Patterson/USA Today Images

On if it was difficult to lead the huddle as a true freshman: “Luckily, we have a great group of seniors in Evan Engram and Robert Conyers really keeping me level-headed throughout the game. Like I said, they just made my job so easy and I just try to control what I can control and do whatever I could to help the team win.”

On what went through his head when Freeze gave him the starting nod: “Just excitement.”

On having his brother, Sean, an assistant coach, on the sideline: “It was pretty cool. That was one of the awesome things coming here to be able to be around him. It was cool to be able to look at him and give him that look like ‘C’mon.’ But talking to coach Werner and coach Freeze on the sidelines, they kept me level-headed, too. It was awesome.”

On the offense running only around four plays in the second half, expanding the playbook this week: “Coming into the spring, that really helped me. Coming in in January, I really didn’t know the offense a lot, like the back of my hand. But those four plays we can run out of so many different looks, so it’s not like we were running four plays. There’s a bunch of different variations, one-high, two-high looks. I think that gave us the momentum. I think one point in a drive we ran one play about four or five times and it worked every single time.”

On if his first touchdown relieved some pressure: “It did. I think once we scored and then stopped them on defense, the defense really helped me out. (The first touchdown) was a pretty crazy play. I felt I had a good block by Javon and the o-line to get me on the other side of the field, and then you had Damore’ea (Stringfellow) kind of feeling it out and getting open. It was awesome.”

On his wealth of wide receivers: “Yeah, that’s the thing. In high school, I was just used to having one or two. To be able to go out there and have six, seven, eight makes my job so much easier. They made so many good plays for me that night. Who knows, without receivers like that, I don’t think it would have turned out like it did.”

On what he’s learned throughout this process: “To stay patient. Your time can come at any moment in the season. If you’re not the starter, if you’re the backup or the third string, approach every week like you’re the starter.”

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