By Parrish Alford
OXFORD – Following the first major scrimmage of spring drills, Ole Miss players didn’t want to use the ‘S’ word, as in separation.
The public comments are mostly about four quarterbacks jumbled together in a mix, working hard and competing to become the Rebels’ starter.
But the audio and visual senses have received conflicting data in the past week and a half.
On Saturday we huddled as a small group of media in the west side stands in a cooperative stat-keeping effort. When the scrimmage ended a gentleman walked by and said, “Boys, it ain’t even close.”
I tend to agree, and the eyes tell me the leader is clearly Randall Mackey.
Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach David Lee hasn’t named Mackey or anyone else – junior Nathan Stanley, West Virginia transfer Barry Brunetti and junior college transfer Zack Stoudt – the starter.
But he’s heaped high praise on Mackey from Day 1. Mackey has done nothing to change course. He’s thrown an accurate and catchable ball and hasn’t had been plagued with turnovers.
For a player known for his elusiveness and running ability, Mackey showed poise in the pocket in the scrimmage, biding his time with good protection and hitting Korvic Neat in the back of the end zone for a 9-yard touchdown.
Brunetti also had a good day, though he did throw one interception. The staff is investing a lot of time in Brunetti right now, and that says two things. One, they believe him to be a strong contender for the job, and two they think there’s a better than average chance that his NCAA waiver request is granted.
Brunetti, based on his mother’s health concerns, is asking that he be ruled immediately eligible and not have to sit out the initial year of competition that the NCAA requires of all transfers.
The paper work has been filed, and the school is awaiting an answer.
For Mackey, the speech problem, the issue of communicating plays to his teammates, lingers in the background. Lee says simply that the speech problem is “getting better.”
In a more elaborate response to the same question, head coach Houston Nutt on Monday indicated that Mackey is much farther along. No problems were evident in the scrimmage or have been evident in the workouts, but that doesn’t mean players aren’t working harder to listen, to focus and to get the play when he calls it. If that’s the case, they’re possibly distracted, and that could show itself at any given time, and any single busted play can mean the difference in winning and losing.
Mackey spoke briefly with reporters Saturday, his appearance approved on the condition that no questions about his speech would be asked.
Mackey and Brunetti both have the mobility that Nutt believes to be very important in his quarterbacks.
If all things are equal among the four, making plays on the ground is an important edge to have.
For Stoudt or Stanley to emerge, they have to be sharper in the passing game, making reads, finding receivers and being on target at a very high percentage. They’re not there right now.
Stoudt was a little ahead of Stanley in the scrimmage, but neither put the team in the end zone. You can endear yourself to coaches by getting across the goal line.
I have been more impressed with Mackey as a quarterback than I thought I would be. I expected him to make a big impact on the offense, but I thought that might be as a receiver.
If the “competition” maintains its current course, it might be in the best interests of Brunetti and the program to disregard the waiver request and take the redshirt. That way Ole Miss could set itself up for a mobile, play-making starter for two years beyond Mackey.
Remember, Mackey is the leader at this point, not the starter.
Right now, several candidates have done good things, but the quarterback race doesn’t exactly look like a jumbled mass.
Parrish Alford covers Ole Miss for the Daily Journal. He blogs daily about Ole Miss athletics a NEMS360.com.