(First of a series of articles that were first published in the Grove Bowl game program, for those who did not get one.)
Offensive Coordinator/Quarterbacks Coach Kent Austin knows from firsthand experience as a record-setting former Ole Miss quarterback that ability trumps a lot of attributes when it comes to playing the all-important QB slot, but there are other variables as well.
"They care. They want to learn and they want to get better. They want to be good," said Austin of the Rebel QBs collectively. "That's half the battle, being hungry and wanting to be good players. They are hungry to learn fundamentally and from an offensive standpoint schematically and in understanding what we are doing. They have applied themselves at a level that I think is going to help us have a chance to win."
Sophomore Jevan Snead was here last season, sitting out via NCAA transfer rules, but he essentially made his debut this spring as the number one guy at quarterback for the Rebels. Junior Billy Tapp is his able backup.
"Jevan and Billy both have some things we are still trying to work out and correct from a fundamental standpoint," Kent assessed. "They are not major things, but they do need to be corrected for them to be more accurate passers.
"On understanding the offense, they have both done an outstanding job. They are learning things conceptually, not just memorizing and being robotic. They understand why we are doing what we are doing in the run game and in the passing game. I am really proud of their progress in that area in particular."
Snead's light came on brighter about midway through the spring.
"I saw it right before our first big scrimmage with Jevan," Kent continued. "He started to really turn the corner on a few things, fundamentally and with his decision-making. He had an outstanding scrimmage that Saturday and did not go backwards after that. The strides he made stuck and he did not backtrack, which is a really good sign it's all sinking in for him. He's getting it mentally and understanding it.
"The number one thing for a quarterback is to get it mentally and make great decisions. There's no question Jevan has the physical tools, but it doesn't matter what your physical tools are if you are not a great decision-maker. That's the number one quality you have to have. You have to be able to put our offense in a position to have success and he's really made some nice strides in that area. There is so much that goes on in a quarterback's mind. You uniquely understand that if you have ever played the position on a high level. Where he puts his eyes pre-snap and post-snap. It's all important in decreasing that decision tree, i.e., the number of decisions he has to make. It's all about making the right decision on where to throw the ball, being accurate and making it easier on the guys up front with proper timing of what we do with the football."
Tapp, it can be argued, does not possess the physical gifts of Snead, but throughout spring he's done one major thing – made plays.
"Billy has done a very, very good job. He's bright, which is number one," Austin stated. "Also, some of the things we are doing in the passing game fit him well. He can process information quickly and both he and Jevan are what we call low rep guys. They don't need to see things five, six, seven times to get it. Billy has a knack for taking things right off the board, understanding them and executing them the first time on the field. He will benefit because he has that skill set mentally."
Sophomore JUCO transfer Layton Jones, junior JUCO transfer Omar Love, redshirt freshman Clay Fowler and freshman Joseph Martin are also working at the quarterback slot, but Austin admittedly has not been able to get them many spring reps.
"We really felt like we needed to get two guys ready in the new system. We are in a situation where we don't have a quarterback who has taken a single snap in the SEC. Because of that, there is more responsibility on us to give our top two most of the spring reps in a new offense," Austin explained. "We made a pre-spring decision to focus on Jevan and Billy.
"The other guys are applying themselves and doing as good as they with limited reps. Fundamentally, they listen and try to get better. They all need fundamental work. It is hard to assess them in their ability to run the offense when they haven't had a chance to do that. They have done well in drill work and are progressing, all of them."
Overall, it appears the quarterback slot is in good hands, from a personnel standpoint and a mentoring standpoint. Snead and Tapp have both talked about how they have clicked with Austin and how much they are learning about playing QB.
It would have been easy for Kent to ballyhoo Snead's impressive physical attributes. He has a dazzling arm and can make all the throws. He can also run well and has a knack for getting out of trouble. Tapp has been a major benefactor of Austin's tutelage and, as was stated earlier, just makes plays.
But the bottom line is that the one major key to the Rebs' offensive success will be how both operate the offensive system. Kent understands that more than anyone and that's why he addressed that angle.
A prediction: there are things to be concerned about with the Ole Miss football team. Quarterback will not be one of them.
In the Grove Bowl, Snead led the Blue team to victory going 20-26 for 269 yards and two TDs. He was picked off once.
Tapp was 7-10 for 69 yards with no TD and no picks.
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