Former Parade All-American and Louisiana Mr. Football award recipient Randall Mackey took the scenic route from his high school in Bastrop, La., to Oxford, Miss.
Originally signing as part of the Rebels 2008 class, Mackey failed to qualify, and spent the last two years lighting up JUCO defenses for the East Mississippi CC Lions.
After a 2009 season that saw the Lions finish fourth in the national rankings and found Mackey named First Team JUCO All-American at quarterback—Auburn super-recruit Cam Newton was Honorable Mention for comparison—those in and around the Ole Miss program were anxious to get the versatile Mackey to Oxford for the Spring Session.
But when the tally for Mackey’s coursework revealed he still needed an algebra class before he could enroll at Ole Miss, the opportunities for Mackey to join the team for Spring Practice and get into the Rebel playbook were blown.
Initially, the delay moved expectations on Mackey from candidate to take over the Wild Rebel in Dexter McCluster’s absence to possible candidate for a redshirt.
Then, in the first week of January, Jevan Snead announced his decision to forgo his senior year quarterbacking the Ole Miss Football Team in favor of his NFL dreams.
With only two quarterbacks left on the roster—Nathan Stanley and Raymond Cotton—Mackey’s absence in the spring was only magnified.
As Snead’s primary backup and with an additional year in the program, most felt that Stanley had a strong hold on the starting position.
Though the final spring depth chart did list Stanley as No. 1, the challenge Raymond Cotton provided proved the decision much closer than expected.
In fact, if Cotton had not suffered a throwing shoulder injury that kept him out of reps for a few days, it is doubtful that the coaching staff would have felt comfortable declaring a starter going into summer.
Stanley’s hold on the starting job may have more to do with the decision Cotton has to make on whether to have surgery to repair the torn labrum now or after next season.
That decision will affect Massey’s role as well.
The early prognosis for rehabilitation of surgical repair on Cotton’s shoulder is six months.
If medical experts decide that there is significant risk for further injury, Cotton will have the surgery sometime this summer and—for all intents and purposes—we will see him next spring.
At that point, Mackey joins the team as the second string quarterback.
If Cotton is out, Mackey spends this summer trying to learn the entire playbook in case Stanley struggles or suffers an injury.
That is a tough row to hoe.
Even if Mackey excels in digesting the terminology and schematics of the game plan, the rhythm and confidence to execute plays is earned in cleats on the field, not in shorts at the desk.
Conversely, if Cotton is able to play this season, Mackey arrives with less overall responsibility for the entire playbook, and both he and the coaching staff can work on ways to utilize Mackey’s physical skills.
Specifically, turning the Wild Rebel formation into a prominent part of the offense, not just a handful-of-plays-a-game package employed when other things start to lose traction.
Untested quarterbacks need friends, and as much as that includes stability on the offensive line or dominant talent at other skill positions, whoever earns the Rebels’ starting QB gig might have no better friend than the player taking snaps in the Wild Rebel.
For all that has recently been written about Wildcat offenses in general the last couple of years, the truest tenets of the formation have gone underappreciated:
The formation works because every play looks exactly the same at the start and defenders are forced into secondary responsibilities.
Taking the latter first, defensive backs are propelled into frontline run stopping roles, while linebackers are often forced into coverage.
That is opposite of almost every defensive scheme out there.
What makes it so difficult for defenses to get proper pre-snap assignments called is the fact the every play in the formation—run or pass—begins and develops precisely the same way before the ball is snapped.
In a college game heavy with zone blitz and read defenses, the Wildcat is an anachronistic antidote to the complexity of defensive minds set loose. Having its roots in single and double wing formations from the earliest days of football, the Wildcat is no gimmick; it is one of the most effective run offenses in the history of the game.
In the race for five receiver sets and shotgun formations, coaches—at every level—just forgot about it.
The dormancy of the Wildcat offense does not imply stasis, however.
The modern Wildcat has evolved to include its own zone reads and varying types of receiver routes. Some teams run the Wildcat with an unbalanced line and some do not.
The fullback is used as a lead blocker by many teams, while others try to draw would-be tacklers out of the box by sending him on a flat route.
In short, all Wildcats are not the same.
Though sometimes subtle, there are differences in the Wild Hog offense Houston Nutt ran at Arkansas and the Wild Rebel package now employed at Ole Miss.
If Randall Mackey has his say this year, those differences will be obvious.
Recruited at three positions out of high school—QB, RB, and WR—Mackey’s athleticism has never been in question.
In two seasons at EMCC, Mackey accounted for over 7,000 yards as the Lions QB, including over 1000 yards on the ground.
With the exception of the “six halfback pass” call against LSU last season in which Dexter McCluster threw a TD to a wide open Shay Hodge, the Wild Rebel has never presented much of a threat to become anything more than a different approach to running the ball.
If Mackey’s dual-threat ability can translate onto SEC gridirons, that could change in a big way.
With all the questions facing the Rebel offense next season after losing Jevan Snead, Dexter McCluster and Shay Hodge at the skill positions, a wild rebel package with the ability to move the ball through the air as well as on the ground could take a lot of pressure off of a new starting quarterback and a new interior line.
If Mackey can make the Wild Rebel a viable option to move the chains and—dare say—score a few points, the inconsistency of a young and inexperienced offensive unit next season might not be the fatal flaw that have many predicting the Rebels to finish last in the SEC West.
There are a lot of “ifs” and “coulds” in that train of thought, and there is no guarantee that coach Houston Nutt does not run the Wild Rebel with only the ground game in mind, having Brandon Bolden or Jesse Grandy take the snaps.
There is also no certainty in Mackey being the type of player at this level that he has proven himself to be elsewhere.
That said, coaches and competitors alike have raved about Mackey’s presence on the field, in both physical and less tangible ways, and the general consensus from that group labels Mackey as a player who makes everyone around him better.
In order for Nutt to—as Rebel Fans hope—build on the lore of fielding his best teams when no one is looking, the offense needs something that can be counted on to win field position battles and keep defenses honest against an underclassman at QB.
The wild rebel is the wildcard in that challenge regardless of who takes the snaps, but Randall Mackey has the skill set to do more with that package than its history suggests.
If Raymond Cotton’s shoulder will just let him.
Jeb Williamson covers Ole Miss Football as a Featured Columnist for the Bleacher Report.
He welcomes and appreciates all comments. Click here for a list of his other articles.