With options in the quarterback room, the Ole Miss offense is confident about this season and the future.
Written by John Pitts | Photos Contributed By Ole Miss Athletics | Illustrated by Frank Estrada
Ole Miss football has a nice problem, one that many college teams would relish. The Rebels have a lot of quarterbacks.
Things change from day to day, of course, but at last look they have at least four, including incumbent junior Jaxson Dart. He was pretty solid last season, but the Ole Miss quarterback room has gotten more crowded since then.
In a college universe where players are free to move without sitting out a season, the Rebels have added former Oklahoma State starter Spencer Sanders along with LSU transfer Walker Howard.
Joining the QB bounty is former Florida commit Austin Simmons, who would otherwise just be a high school junior but decided to reclassify to join the Ole Miss quarterback party.
“I’d say it’s a really competitive room, and it’s in much better shape — which is our goal as a staff for the entire roster,” Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin told reporters at July’s SEC Media Days in Nashville. “Each position group, try to make them more competitive and more balanced throughout each year.”
So, how is that approach working for his quarterbacks?
“That room is by far the best it’s been since we got here,” said Kiffin, whose team finished 8-5 last season, his third year in Oxford. “We’re excited.”
Everything in the Ole Miss quarterback room starts with Dart, who transferred to Ole Miss from Southern Cal a year ago.
Last season, he started 11 games and threw for 2,974 yards with 20 touchdowns against 11 interceptions. He also rushed for 614 yards.
“Jaxson made some big plays, but as a team we didn’t take care of the ball,” Kiffin said. “Too many turnovers, and a lot of that has to do with that position.”
Former Vanderbilt QB Jordan Rogers, an SEC Network analyst, is intrigued to see how the Ole Miss quarterback situation plays out.
“I think that’s one of the more interesting storylines in the entire conference,” Rogers said. “You’ve got guys that are experienced. Jaxson Dart is experienced, he’s played a lot of football. Had some good, had some bad.”
At the least, Dart is the leader in the clubhouse, to borrow a golf term. He’s one of nine returning starters on offense, to go with seven returning starters on defense.
“It’s going to take a lot for it to not be Dart as the starter,” said Michael Katz, veteran Ole Miss beat writer for Tupelo’s Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, before the season began. “He’d have to be actually awful to make a change. And I think the locker room wants him to be the guy. But, of course, it’s Lane, so you never know.”
But football can be unpredictable, especially when it comes to injuries. Recall last season’s NFL playoff game when the San Francisco 49ers ran out of options after all the quarterbacks on their depth chart got hurt.
Walker Howard, who took a few snaps for LSU last season but is still listed as a freshman, figures to be a longer-term project for the Rebels, but will surely benefit from time in the stacked quarterback room. The same goes for young Austin Simmons.
“I’m excited to see how it plays out, because Kiffin is known for his offense,” Rogers said. “That quarterback situation may dictate a lot in the SEC West.”
Whoever ultimately takes the snaps at quarterback, the Rebels will have their work cut out for them. After an easy Sept. 2 opener at home against Mercer, Ole Miss will confront a remaining schedule that looks like one of the nation’s toughest.
As ESPN pointed out, Ole Miss is the only SEC team that must face both defensive national champion Georgia and traditional league kingpin Alabama on the road.
One not-so-secret weapon Ole Miss will be counting on is running back Quinshon Judkins. He had a sensational freshman year, rushing for 1,567 yards and 16 touchdowns. He was the 2022 SEC Freshman of the Year and won the Conerly Trophy as the state’s best college football player.
“One of the best running backs in the entire country, if not the best,” Rogers said.
Even in pass-happy 2023, a strong running game will make any quarterback’s job easier — and the defense’s day harder.
And something else defenses might need to worry about …
Any chance Kiffin might ever find a way to get all of his quarterbacks into the game at once?
“Oh gosh, I hope so,” Katz said with a laugh. “He ought to run all of them out there for the first play of the season.”