Former No. 1 QB Recruit Shea Patterson Stands Tall Amid Big Mess at Ole Miss

Matt Hayes@matthayescfbSenior National College Football WriterJuly 25, 2017

OXFORD, MS - NOVEMBER 26:  Shea Patterson #20 of the Mississippi Rebels runs the ball during a game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on November 26, 2016 in Oxford, Mississippi.  The Bulldogs defeated the Rebels 55-20.  (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The simple black letters are inked on Shea Patterson's right inner forearm, a Bible verse just below the hand.

"But the Godly are as bold as Lions."

...even when they are trying to save a college football program on the brink of collapse.

Welcome to the new mission of 2016's No. 1 quarterback recruit, who turned away Alabama and LSU to instead lead upstart Ole Miss and now finds himself in the bright light of a program under a very dark cloud. Patterson, a true sophomore who already has twice stepped up to try to restore the program's reputation, now is centerstage in a disturbing drama that threatens to suck the football life from the University of Mississippi.

"I don't regret it; never have, never will," Patterson said recently at SEC Media Days, when asked about his decision to play for Ole Miss.

Less than a week later, his head coach, Hugh Freeze, resigned for personal-conduct reasons, thrusting the Rebels deeper into shambles.

That Bible verse that seems random enough when read on Patterson's arm seems particularly appropriate when explored in full.

"The wicked run away when no one is chasing them; but the Godly are as bold as Lions." – Proverbs 28:1 (New Living Translation).

The "wicked" flee because of guilt; their fear is being exposed. They constantly look behind because, inevitably, judgment day is coming. The "Godly," or "righteous" have no fear—because with God on their side, who can be against them?

It's not hard to figure out who's the wicked. The righteous in Ole Miss' drama could flee, but all indications are that Patterson will spend the next two seasons—at least—playing with everything stacked against him.

"If I never played a down of football, I'd be going to school at Ole Miss," Patterson said this spring. "I love it there. Everything about it."

He has become the face of the program even though the college football world has barely been introduced to him. He was everyone's can't-miss star in high school (ranked the No. 1 QB recruit by Scout and others). He's the quarterback with the strong arm who can throw it on a line from the opposite hashmark to the numbers. He's the dual-threat runner who reminds one NFL scout of Russell Wilson and Johnny Manziel.

Butch Dill/Associated Press

After watching him play all of three games last year, one NFL scout told Bleacher Report that Patterson "has the tools to play in this league for 10 years—and make a whole lot of money."

But can he play at a high level while withstanding what's coming at him off the field? The seemingly endless run of bad news out of Oxford increases the pressure on Patterson to do something, anything, good for those at Ole Miss clinging to him.

Late last week, Freeze resigned for problems not related, Ole Miss contends, to a detailed and potentially devastating NCAA investigation that already includes a self-imposed bowl ban for 2017. Stiffer sanctions are likely on the way, since Ole Miss' only defense of damaging allegations was Freeze's character—that a man of such high standards couldn't have known about the dirty dealings on his staff.

Then there's interim coach Matt Luke, who has never run either side of the ball (he has been co-offensive coordinator), much less run a program—a program that Patterson admitted earlier this month could eventually be in a dangerous and fragile state if it goes bad early this season.

This leaves one of college football's bright young stars with a unique opportunity while stuck in the muck of uncertainty.

"He clearly has talent, but these next couple of years are going to show what kind of character he has," one NFL scout told Bleacher Report. "A lot of guys can make all of the throws. Not everyone can deal with what he's going to face from this day forward."

Patterson has been dealing with adversity for much of his recent football life: As a prep phenom, he played for three high schools, each in a different state.

He committed to Arizona as a sophomore and was considered a lock for LSU while leading Calvary Baptist in Shreveport, Louisiana, to back-to-back state titles. He then shocked the recruiting world by committing to play for Ole Miss before his senior season at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

He arrived at Ole Miss as part of a heralded 2016 recruiting class, a group that had bolstered Freeze's success as a recruiter and set in motion dreams of championships. That's right, the only original member of the SEC West Division that hadn't played in the league's championship game was going to win a conference title. And maybe more.

"People thought I was crazy," Patterson said. "Why wouldn't I play at Alabama and win a national championship? Why play for a school that hadn't done anything? I heard it all. Why wouldn't I play where they haven't won in years? That makes winning it all sweeter."

But as bright as the outlook looked on the surface, it was that very 2016 recruiting class at the heart of what former coach Houston Nutt has said in a lawsuit was Freeze's elaborate scheme to convince recruits that looming NCAA violations were connected to the previous staff, not his.

As the product on the field struggled in 2016, and it was clear that significant NCAA issues were looming, Patterson twice made sacrifices to try to shore up the team. From November 2016 to February 2017, he stuck with both Freeze and Ole Miss when he could have simply walked away.

Shea Patterson gave up his redshirt season at the request of Hugh Freeze last November.
Shea Patterson gave up his redshirt season at the request of Hugh Freeze last November.Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

Late last season, Freeze asked Patterson to burn his redshirt to play for injured starter Chad Kelly and help the Rebels try to qualify for the postseason. Ole Miss didn't reach six wins, but Patterson's performance in those three games was enough to draw a positive spotlight to a program reeling through a season of near-misses.

He burned his redshirt season even though he initially was not convinced it was the right thing to do. Victories could only, at best, put the Rebels into a meaningless bowl game.

Patterson shined in his first game against Texas A&M, completing 25 of 42 passes for 338 yards and two touchdowns, and directing Ole Miss' final game-winning drive. It didn't matter that Ole Miss lost to Vanderbilt and Mississippi State to eliminate postseason hopes; the emergence of the SEC's next big star softened the blow of Freeze wasting a season of eligibility for the nation's No. 1 high school quarterback.

"I saw a little bit of Johnny (Manziel) in him when we played," said Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin. "You can't teach some of that stuff."

But any momentum coming out of last season quickly subsided. In late February of this year, the NCAA sent Ole Miss a second letter of allegations that included seven Level 1 (or major) violations. After Freeze and his staff struggled to recruit under the cloud of suspicion, Freeze again needed Patterson—this time to publicly commit to staying in Oxford despite what could be more damaging sanctions.

A few days later, Patterson backed Ole Miss and Freeze, proclaiming on his Twitter account that "20 is ready to go…I love my school, coaches, teammates and our fans and I can't wait for the 2017 season together! Let's go!"

"I felt like I needed to say something to let everyone know we're all in it together," Patterson told Bleacher Report in May.

When asked if it meant as much for this season's team as for future recruits, Patterson admitted, "Yeah, sure. We needed that. I wanted everyone to know I wasn't jumping off. It was important for this program."

A few months later, Patterson is staring at another commit-or-walk moment, another chance to escape a situation so fraught with obstacles not of his doing that no one would second-guess a decision to transfer. While Patterson hasn't publicly spoken about Freeze's firing and dealing with the collateral damage, he spoke at length in May about what was then just the NCAA investigation.

"I had friends ask me, 'How much are they paying you?'" Patterson said. "It's crazy that people think that's why I'm here. I'm here because I love Ole Miss. I'm not going anywhere.

"I'm not one of those quarterbacks you see too much now, who if it doesn't work out, (he's) leaving and finding somewhere else to play. That's not who I am, not who I will ever be.

"You play this game through the good and bad. The good is never that far away from the bad."

The bad in this case, in Patterson's specific circumstances, is easier to find than the good. Only once in the last decade has the No. 1-ranked high school quarterback dealt with a similar situation: former USC quarterback Matt Barkley.

Though Barkley played all four seasons at USC, he spent his sophomore and junior years under an NCAA bowl ban. Patterson will play this fall under an NCAA bowl ban, and unless Ole Miss can somehow defend damning NCAA allegations, he'll likely play 2018 under a similar ban. A significantly more talented USC team was 18-7 in those two seasons under Barkley, and 7-6 in his senior season when the ban was lifted at the height of the impact of NCAA sanctions.

"You play together as a team, play for each other, play for pride," Barkley said. "Don't let anyone tell you there's no motivation."

There's no sense in Patterson running from it now. Might as well turn and face it and fight through it.

The way he sees it, Ole Miss may not be allowed to play in a bowl game, but it still can have a major impact on the college football season, in the SEC and nationwide.

"We've taken a motto this season for every game we play," Patterson said. "If we can't go (to a bowl), you can't go."

As bold as a lion.


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