Ole Miss Preview: Player to Watch-Ethan Flatt

Ethan Flatt never expected he'd be the guy to follow Eli Manning as the Ole Miss starting quarterback. He thought that would be Michael Spurlock‚s heavy burden to bear.

Spurlock tried for a few games. His effort was not a rousing success, so he turned over the job to Flatt.

And while Ole Miss coach David Cutcliffe employed a bizarre-but-successful three-man rotation at quarterback in Saturday‚s 31-28 upset of South Carolina, it was Flatt who was clearly the leader. He finished 18-of-27 passing for 214 yards, and he connected with Bill Flowers on a 29-yard touchdown pass on fourth down with 1:05 left.

Not bad for a guy who didn't even expect to be a factor this season, particularly after Spurlock won the endorsement of Cutcliffe well before the season started.

"There was definitely a lot of pressure on Michael to replace Eli," said Flatt, a sophomore from David Lipscomb High in Nashville. "All the pressure was on Mike. Those are such big shoes to fill. Nobody expected me to do anything, so I didn't feel the pressure."

Now that Flatt has come front and center in the Ole Miss offense, he likely is feeling some pressure. That pressure could get worse this week as the Rebels prepare for their toughest test yet against Tennessee.

"Obviously I want to play well," Flatt said. "I put pressure on myself, but I don't worry about having to make the big plays. It's my job to just be consistent in running the offense. Following Eli is tough. He is an icon here. He's huge. I can't worry about that. I just have to play my game."

So far, Flatt's game has been pretty darn good. He has completed 81-of-139 passes for 927 yards and four touchdowns. The one downside has been five interceptions.

"Every week is a new experience," Flatt said. "But I am feeling more comfortable. It has been a process. I've learned a lot each game. I have gotten better in a lot of aspects. I figured I might get a shot this year, but not so soon."

Flatt didn't take over as the top quarterback until the second half of a loss to Alabama. Despite suffering a defeat, Ole Miss thrived offensively with Flatt at the helm in the second half.

"It was nerve-racking to go in at Tuscaloosa and we are down three touchdowns," Flatt said. "We were able to move the ball a little. Coach saw something he liked. It helped my confidence."

In the rotation game against South Carolina, Cutcliffe shocked everyone by shuttling three quarterbacks in and out throughout the day. Spurlock and Robert Lane were inserted mostly on running plays. Spurlock gained 34 yards on eight carries and Lane had 16 on four carries. Spurlock was 2-of-5 passing and Lane went 0-for-2 through the air.

The quarterback switcheroo apparently confused South Carolina's defense. The Gamecocks defense, ranked first in the SEC against the rush and third against the pass, gave up 319 yards in the first half.

"It seemed so crazy," Ole Miss running back Vashon Pearson said. "I wasn't sure it was going to work. But now I think we need to do it all the time."

Flatt remained at quarterback for the entire final drive that produced the winning score. Flatt moved the Rebels 73 yards in less than 90 seconds, hitting Flowers for the winning score.

Cutcliffe wouldn't say whether he will continue with the three-man rotation this week.

"When you are not playing better than we have been, not too many decisions are difficult," he said. "It will be a week-by-week decision."

Flatt echoed his coach's comments. "It is still up for grabs,'"he said. "Each week we will be evaluated. We all know that."

The quarterback's job has been helped by the resurgence of a running game. Pearson, who had 97 yards against South Carolina, has averaged 98 yards rushing per game.

The Rebels still need to improve their performance inside the opponent's 20-yard line.

„As a team, we need to convert the red zone opportunities," he said. "The past few games we have had to kick a lot of field goals. But the offense has been pretty balanced. Vashon has had some big games for us."

With Saturday's win, Ole Miss has high hopes for a strong turnaround to what had been a disappointing start. A win over Tennessee would be huge.

"We got off to a rough start," Flatt said. "Our goal is to just play one game at a time. That's what we have to do in the SEC."

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