Decision Time

Ole Miss quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, leading his second scrimmage series with the first team late Saturday afternoon, took the snap from his own 24-yard line and looked downfield.

He wouldn't have much time to throw.

A talented Rebel defense was bearing down quickly, forcing Masoli to scramble to his left to keep a rather routine play alive. But Masoli is at his best when using his feet to avoid trouble. Over his career, including his senior season when leading Oregon to the Rose Bowl, he rushed for 1,368 yards. Fifty-one times, may it be on the ground or in the air, he found the end zone.

"Masoli did real well," sophomore quarterback Nathan Stanley said. "As you saw today, Jeremiah makes play. He's a big-time play-maker. He's proved that in these past two scrimmages and at Oregon.

"That's going to help us out a lot."

Masoli and Stanley

Lionel Breaux, against man-to-man coverage, was separating from his defender down the sideline. Masoli could see it. Almost in an instant, he stopped, planted and fired an arching pass as Breaux broke to the back pylon.

Touchdown. And of the 76-yard variety, no less.

"He makes plays," Ole Miss head coach Houston Nutt said. "The guy makes plays, especially under duress."

Some would find such a display of athleticism surprising. Masoli, for everything he brings, isn't an imposing presence. He's much closer to 5-foot-8 than his listed 5-11. If standing beside Stanley, who was 10-for-11 for 117 yards and led two touchdown drives, Masoli could easily be mistaken as Billy Crystal to Stanley's Gheorghe Muresan.

This week marked just the second for Masoli at Ole Miss. He still lacks a firm grasp of the offensive playbook, especially compared to Stanley, who patiently waited two seasons behind Jevan Snead for his chance as a starting quarterback in the Southeastern Conference.

But what Masoli lacks in systematic knowledge, he makes up for in game experience and that innate ability to create when a play goes horribly wrong. It's those strengths that have helped make this Ole Miss quarterback race so tight.

Add in Randall Mackey, who completed 3-of-8 passes for 72 yards and a touchdown, and Nutt will soon, possibly Tuesday, be faced with a difficult, if not enviable, decision.

"You've got to get down to one or two. You can continue to work three," he said. "You're getting down to it now. You really got to start getting some reps and zeroing in on the opponent that's coming up."

Stanley didn't throw his first incompletion until his 11th pass. He isn't going down without a fight, and remains the clear frontrunner to start in the team's season opener against Jacksonville State Sept. 4, though Nutt admitted he'll play at least two, presumably Stanley and Masoli.

"I feel good about all three of them," Nutt said. "Nathan has had basically 18 plays (in his career) and he's had a spring practice. I feel real confident about putting him in a game. I have no problem with it. And now, the next two, I can put either one of them in the game. I just want to evaluate the film real hard and we'll make a decision come Tuesday."

Stanley has thrived on the competition. He even channeled his inner Masoli as the scrimmage wound down, avoiding the rush and hurrying 25 yards for his only touchdown.

Nathan Stanley

Masoli and Mackey aren't the only scramblers, apparently.

"The better competition you have, the better you perform," Stanley said. "(Masoli) is great. He can play. I feel like it helps me. I build off that."

If Mackey ends up being the odd man out, Nutt said he could possibly try the decorated junior college transfer at another position. However, he views Mackey as a quarterback, leaving the possibility of a redshirt open.

"That's the thing we've got to talk about Sunday," Nutt said. "He's such a good athlete. But in my mind, the guy's really a quarterback. He's a really good quarterback. You can put him on the field for a couple of plays at receiver, but I feel he's more of a quarterback. He's not a true receiver."

The final decision isn't an easy one. Little has separated Stanley, Masoli and Mackey through the first two weeks of fall camp.

But as Nutt will admit, he's in a much better position than he was not even a month ago.

"It's a good situation," he said. "That's what you feel good about."

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