Head Ole Miss Rebel Hugh Freeze has his eyes on the quarterback situation in Oxford this spring, as the reserve spot has the Rebels very concerned. With starter Bo Wallace recovering from shoulder surgery, inexperienced reserves Barry Brunetti and Maikhail Miller are splitting snaps behind center.
Finding the Positive with Wallace Sidelined
Last season, Rebels QB Bo Wallace completed 235 passes for 2,994 yards and 22 touchdowns. Further, the dual-threat quarterback rushed 143 times for 390 yards and eight scores. While Wallace may have thrown a costly 17 interceptions, he scored for Ole Miss 30 times in 2012. He's the clear choice to lead Ole Miss in his final two seasons. However, he must remain healthy.
While the junior isn't available to take part in spring ball, it may actually be a blessing in disguise that Ole Miss will get to more closely evaluate Brunetti and Miller.
That's exactly what Freeze and company will try and do this spring: find a silver lining in Wallace's absence. Specifically, the coaching staff must determine whether or not Miller is a viable second-string quarterback candidate. Brunetti is merely at the position right now due to lack of depth.
At least during week one of spring practice, neither of the two young men have had a lot of success. Freeze recently spoke about spring quarterback play to the Clarion Ledger:
We don’t go through the progression like you’re supposed to a lot of times and then we’ll have easy throws that we make difficult because of footwork that is bad and a lot of the stuff we do in the run game, they’re not involved in all of it that would really help us get those four yards. We got a ways to go at that spot.
Reserve Quarterback Experience
In contrast to Wallace, Brunetti only completed 23 passes for 196 passing yards and a single score in 2012. However, the top reserve did rush 60 times for 277 yards and three touchdowns. He provided the Rebels with a different look on short-yardage situations, especially in the "Wild Rebel" formation. The former West Virginia transfer is talented, but he simply hasn't fared well as signal-caller in Oxford.
As for Miller, the sophomore has yet to throw a single pass at Ole Miss. As a freshman last season, he only saw action in two games. The sum of his production was 23 yards on six rushes. However, the 6'2'', 240-pound reserve certainly gives Freeze a different look on offense.
Spring Practice Opportunities
Obviously, the plan is to have Wallace return healthy and ready to go this summer. However, you better believe the coaching staff has already considered the possibility of Wallace either not returning entirely healthy or even worse re-injuring his shoulder this fall. All things considered, Freeze is wise to be weighing his options.
Ole Miss is on the rise. Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M will be tough competition in the rigorous SEC Western Division as usual, but the Rebs have a chance to create some chaos. For that to happen, a contingency plan must be in place in the event the mobile, Brett Favre-esque Rebels starter goes down. Freeze must begin building his quarterback insurance policy right now.
This spring, he and offensive coordinator Dan Werner will continue to give Brunetti and Miller opportunities to show what they're capable of doing. Brunetti will again get a chance to shine, but ultimately he simply fits best into the Rebel offense similar to how Randall Mackey did. However, Brunetti will be among a handful of players vying to fill Mackey's role.
Assuming the senior finds a permanent home elsewhere on offense, Miller would appear to be the heir-apparent. However, at least thus far he's done nothing spectacular during the spring. Therefore, the coaching staff is likely already considering the possibility of not redshirting one of their two talented freshmen quarterbacks, Devante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan, arriving in the summer.
The Idea Situation Behind Wallace
From a coaching standpoint, the ideal situation would be to redshirt both Kincade and Buchanan. However, if Brunetti or Miller continue to struggle, all attention will quickly turn to the incoming freshmen. If that's the eventual case, competition this summer will be downright fierce.
In Freeze's fast-break offense, at face value the dual-threat Kincade would appear to provide the option most similar to Wallace's style of play. However, Buchanan offers a taller, heavier pocket presence. An ultimate decision of which youngster is ready to go earlier will only come after coaches have had the summer to fully evaluate Brunetti, Miller, Kincade and Buchanan as a group.
The second-year head coach is fully aware that a starting quarterback, especially a mobile one with previous shoulder issues, is one hit away from potentially being injured. Six regular-season wins was impressive in year one at Ole Miss, but the Rebels absolutely have a shot at winning eight, nine or 10 games this season if Wallace returns in top form.
That being said, nothing's sure in life but death and taxes. Therefore it's absolutely imperative Ole Miss coaches find a reserve it's confident in prior to the season opener on August 29.
Best-Case Spring Scenario
The best-case scenario this spring would be for Miller to look solid and leave camp as the clear-cut backup. With a clear one-two punch in Wallace and Miller, Freeze could put more attention this summer on ensuring Miller fully understands the complex offensive scheme. Additionally, less pressure would be on the coaching staff to throw Kincade or Buchanan into the mix as true freshmen.
Worst-Case Spring Scenario
On the other hand, a worst-case scenario (and the most likely one at the moment) would be closing out camp with more quarterback questions than there even were prior to spring. If that happens, summer won't be able to arrive quickly enough for Ole Miss.
As soon as Kincade and Buchanan arrive this summer, they'd immediately be scrutinized from every angle to determine which one could be ready to go as a backup this season.
Putting It All Together
Even if Wallace returns better than ever, it's paramount to find a quality backup.
In order to seriously contend in the SEC this year, Freeze absolutely must have a solid backup quarterback in place by the end of summer. Without one, Ole Miss could be in real trouble.