In the state that spawned Brett Favre, Steve McNair and Archie Manning, thoughts quickly turn to quarterbacks when college football season nears.
And in Mississippi this year, there’s plenty of reason to focus on the signal callers at the Magnolia State’s three Football Bowl Subdivision schools.
From Houston Nutt’s last-minute decision to invite former Oregon quarterback Jeremiah Masoli to Ole Miss to steep competition at Mississippi State and Southern Miss, quarterbacks should dominate the headlines this August.
Masoli’s surprise entry into the discussion came after the Rebels lost Raymond Cotton, who decided to transfer just two weeks before preseason practice begins. The move started a scramble in Oxford that ended when Masoli announced on his website he is joining the Rebels.
Nutt can’t talk about Masoli under NCAA rules until he practices, but the coach acknowledged he was in a bind after Cotton decided to go to South Alabama instead of competing for the starting job with Nate Stanley and junior college transfer Randall Mackey.
“Usually when you’re recruiting in July and August there’s a problem,” Nutt said.
Stanley, a redshirt sophomore, was expected to be the starter thanks to Jevan Snead’s departure to the NFL a year early — with Cotton has been pushing him. Mackey has the skills to be Nutt’s Wild Rebel quarterback, but with no official practices yet, coaches aren’t sure if he’ll be ready to contribute this year.
The prospect of having two inexperienced quarterbacks wasn’t a pleasant one.
“It’s nerve-racking because you can’t scrimmage the two in preseason,” Nutt said. “You can’t take that chance.”
How Masoli will fit in at Ole Miss remains to be seen. He was available because Oregon coach Chip Kelly kicked him off the team following two brushes with the law in six months. Can he stay out of trouble at Ole Miss? Can he contribute with just a month to learn the offense?
Masoli can play right away under NCAA rules and he seems a perfect fit for Nutt’s Wild Rebel offense. And he has an advantage over the competition because of both experience and success. The 5-foot-11, 220-pound quarterback last season led Oregon to its first Pac-10 title since 2001 and first Rose Bowl appearance since 1995.
Stanley, a dropback passer, doesn’t have the experience of Masoli with just limited action last season, including a brief time on the field in the Cotton Bowl while Snead was shaking off a hard hit. But Nutt showed there was room for both styles and more than one signal caller in his offense the last two seasons at Ole Miss.
The Rebels will start finding out what their future looks like Wednesday when Masoli says he’ll return to Oxford to start conditioning workouts. The Rebels report this weekend.
The competition is already under way at Mississippi State and Southern Miss with both teams starting practice Tuesday.
In Starkville, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen declares the competition wide open. He’s got essentially two real contenders and a newcomer with a last name that keeps you from ruling anything out.
Chris Relf is expected to be the starter after an up-and-down season that ended with the 6-foot-3, 230-pounder running all over Ole Miss in a 41-27 Egg Bowl victory.
That game was a peek at what the possibilities could be. Relf rushed for 131 yards and one touchdown, and completed three passes with two going for scores.
Not a bad game to mark as a breakout moment, but don’t make the mistake of calling it a dominant performance. Mullen — the offensive coordinator at Florida for three of Tim Tebow’s four seasons — will quickly refute that description with some heady numbers.
“I’ve had some quarterbacks dominate a game before,” Mullen said. “Dominating a game would be Josh Harris (at Bowling Green) dominated a game against Northwestern when he had 490 yards of total offense. Tebow against South Carolina accounted for seven touchdowns in one game. Those are dominating performances. I thought Chris played solidly, and how he played in that game to me that’s the base expectation level of what we expect from the quarterback.”
Mullen says Relf has taken up the challenge in the offseason, and that he is a better passer, a better leader and has done the work it takes to be the starter. But he’s still got to outperform his challengers in preseason camp.
He’ll be competing against redshirt freshman Tyler Russell, a dropback passer with an impressive high school resume. Mullen says Russell is ready to compete for the job after watching from the sidelines for a season.
And don’t forget Dylan Favre, Brett Favre’s nephew. He’s a longshot, but he rewrote the Mississippi high school record book has shown he’s a lot like his uncle when it comes to meeting challenges.
That’s why Mullen’s reserving judgment till the week of the Sept. 4 opener against Memphis.
“We have 29 practices before our first game, so there’s so much more competition time in practice before you ever play a game, it’d be hard to name a starter at this point,” he said.
In Hattiesburg, Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora has a good problem to sort out. He’s got two quarterbacks who have proven they can win to choose from after Martevious Young guided the team to a 5-2 finish when starter Austin Davis went down.
Davis, who broke every school freshman passing mark two years ago, skipped spring practice while rehabilitating torn ligaments in his left foot, but he will begin practice as the team’s No. 1 quarterback because of team rules. Fedora says the junior used his time away from the field so well he’s an even better quarterback.
“What he did was he tried to turn it into a positive,” Fedora said. “The things that he could do he was able to do full time. He couldn’t move around on his feet but he was on his knees throwing and improving his arm strength. He spent a lot more time in the film room studying, understanding and learning how to manage a game. So I think the things he was able to do he did 110 percent.”
If Davis doesn’t return to form or has a setback, Young is ready to push his way back onto the field. He passed for 1,861 yards with 16 touchdowns and just three interceptions last season, and had the Golden Eagles a win away from the Conference USA championship game before leading them back to the New Orleans Bowl.
If he wants a chance to do those things again, he’s got to show coaches one thing.
“He’s got to prove that the offense is better when he’s on the field than when Austin is on the field,” Fedora said. “It’s the same at ever position. We tell every guy we don’t care if you’re a freshman, sophomore, junior or senior, you’ve just got to prove that the team’s better when you’re on the field.”
Chris Talbott/The Associated Press