The Ole Miss Rebels are in desperate need of a solid reserve quarterback in 2013.
While head coach Hugh Freeze and offensive coordinator Dan Werner await the return of starting QB Bo Wallace from shoulder surgery, a significant reserve quarterback controversy is unfolding in Oxford, Miss.
The Million Dollar Quarterback Question
Last season, Wallace completed 235 passes for 2,994 yards and 22 touchdowns. On the ground, the dual-threat quarterback rushed 143 times for 390 yards and eight scores. While Wallace may have thrown 17 interceptions in 2012, he compensated by tossing 30 touchdowns for the Rebels.
As a rising junior this season, even better things are expected from Wallace.
Assuming he fully recovers from shoulder surgery prior to the August 29 opener at Vanderbilt, Ole Miss has a legitimate chance to win eight to 10 games this season.
That is, if Wallace returns and stays healthy.
Who will Ole Miss turn to if Wallace is unavailable at any point this year?
As the Rebels wrapped up spring practice on Saturday, that remains the million dollar question.
Ranking Six Potential Options at Reserve QB
With no single reserve quarterback having created real separation at the end of spring practice, it's worth examining six potential options for Ole Miss ahead of the summer. That being said, here's how I rank the reserves' chances to start at the end of spring practice.
At the Grove Bowl on Saturday, Rebels fans got a chance to see Miller at quarterback for the first time. Like reserve Barry Brunetti, Miller had his share of ups and downs in the scrimmage. In the end, the sophomore went 7-of-11 for 46 yards and rushed for an additional 60 yards.
As a freshman last season, Miller saw action in only two games. The sum of his production was 23 yards on six rushes. However, the 6'2'', 240-pound reserve does give his squad a different look when under center.
Miller would have to enter summer as the probable starter ahead of Brunetti based on the total package he offers and his spring performance.
Now a senior, Brunetti hasn't lived up to the hype he generated upon transferring from West Virginia. While he's a talented, physical athlete, quarterback just hasn't been his best position.
He only completed 23 passes for 196 passing yards and a single score in 2012. However, the top reserve did have success by rushing 60 times for 277 yards and three touchdowns. Brunetti provided the Rebels with a different look on short-yardage situations, especially in the "Wild Rebel" formation.
With Wallace out this spring, Brunetti entered spring camp as the starter by default. Despite receiving yet another chance to shine under center, he was pedestrian at best. One moment, he would scramble for a solid run or toss a crisp pass, but the next moment, he would follow up with an awful pass.
While I have him slotted at No. 2, he would quickly slide down in rank if either of the young freshmen can step in early and impress coaches this summer.
3. (Tie) Ryan Buchanan
Buchanan signed with the Rebels in February, and he'll begin his Ole Miss career with a legitimate chance to compete for the backup quarterback job. It's asking a great deal for a true freshman to be thrown in against SEC defenses, but it's an option on the table this season.
Which true freshman will end up higher on the depth chart in 2013?
The Jackson, Miss. native was ranked the No. 15 pocket passer in the nation. After receiving scholarship offers from Alabama, Florida and Oklahoma State, just to name a few, Buchanan felt most comfortable coming to Oxford.
At 6'3'' and 203 pounds, the youngster will arrive at Ole Miss with a nice frame for a college quarterback. After teaming up with Rebels strength coach Paul Jackson this summer, he'll only become more SEC-ready from a physical standpoint.
If he can quickly adapt to the speed of college ball and learn the complex Rebels offense, he'll have as good a shot as any of these candidates to back up Wallace this fall.
3. (Tie) Devante Kincade
Kincade will join fellow true freshman Buchanan this summer in competing for the top reserve spot. Right now, I put the two youngsters in a tie for No. 3. Both are extremely talented and will enter the competition with the same level of experience: zero.
However, the 6'0'', 180-pound quarterback who received offers from Kansas State, Nebraska and Notre Dame will give the Rebels a different look than Buchanan.
Rated the nation's No. 12 dual-threat option by ESPN, Kincade is already planning to be a leader at Ole Miss. How many kids do you think attach cover letters to their national letters of intent on signing day? Not very many.
The Dallas athlete will start his career in Oxford with a chance to impress coaches from Day 1. In Freeze's fast-break offense, a quarterback like Kincade could be dangerous. However, how quickly he adjusts to the college game and the Ole Miss offense will ultimately determine how soon he finds playing time in the SEC.
Heading into the Grove Bowl, most Rebels fans had probably never heard of Purnell.
However, that changed on Saturday. While the Philadelphia native only tossed two passes in the spring game, his performance through the air was good for 40 yards and a touchdown.
The 5'10'', 210-pound relative unknown came to Ole Miss from Camden Community College.
With the race wide open behind Wallace, Purnell will at least have a shot.
He may be the biggest wild card in the entire list of competitors.
The 6'2'', 217-pound senior from Texas was 3-of-11 for 56 yards and an interception at the spring game.
While he went 22-of-51 for 288 yards, two scores and a pick at Sewanee in 2009, Ratliff has zero game experience for the Ole Miss Rebels. That being said, the reserve QB controversy at play in Oxford has provided him with at least an opportunity to compete for the top reserve spot.
Putting It All Together
The bottom line is Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss have no true backup to Wallace at the end of spring.
By default, Miller leads the pack based upon his overall spring performance, and Brunetti comes in slightly behind the big sophomore based on experience. However, anything can happen once summer practice kicks off outside of Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford.
Will Miller look even better this summer?
Will Brunetti finally look like the player he was expected to be?
Can Purnell or Ratliff surprise the coaching staff this summer and efficiently manage the offense?
Might Buchanan or Kincade show up on Day 1 and look even better than advertised?
At least for now, it's anyone's best guess as to who ends up as the top reserve. Make no mistake that Freeze and Werner will analyze the situation from every possible angle before players put on the pads again this summer.