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Ole Miss’ decision on a backup QB is a game of risk assessment

Hugh Freeze’s apparent decision to redshirt Shea Patterson saves a year of eligibility but could backfire if Chad Kelly goes down.

Georgia v Mississippi Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

The moment Shea Patterson walked into an Ole Miss classroom as an early enrollee, the Ole Miss coaches were presented a question of risk. The offseason defections of DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan left Patterson (the No. 1 quarterback recruit in the country) and Jason Pellerin (a three-star redshirt freshman) as the only scholarship passers behind star Chad Kelly. Hugh Freeze could either burn Patterson’s redshirt to prepare him to be Kelly’s backup, or put him on the shelf and make the less talented Pellerin the No. 2.

Six weeks into the season, that decision seems to have been made. Pellerin has played in three games. Patterson hasn’t seen a snap.

“We’ve talked, obviously, many times about what [Patterson’s] role is and what he wants to do,” Rebel offensive coordinator Dave Werner told The Ole Miss Spirit this week. “Basically it’s a conversation between me, Coach Freeze and him, but the plan is going exactly how we’d hoped it would. In that regard, we’re happy with how it’s happened.”

That plan, it seems, is to redshirt Patterson and hope like hell Kelly doesn’t go down with an injury.

We’ve seen Pellerin serve as an effective short-yardage option this season. Of the eight plays he’s quarterbacked in short-yardage situations*, he’s converted six of them, including four rushing touchdowns and two more through the air.

*I’m calling a short-yardage situation any play run inside the opponent’s five-yard line or any third- or fourth-down with three or fewer yards to go.

What we haven’t seen is Pellerin show the ability to lead the offense as a true quarterback. Though Werner praised Pellerin’s passing (“People see a guy like him come in and think we’re just going to run the ball, but now they’ve seen he can throw it, too”), the stats don’t back him up. Pellerin’s completed just four of his eight attempts and thrown a pair of picks (in fairness, his interception against Georgia was a duck that floated out as he was being decked).

Pellerin’s stats on the ground aren’t particularly impressive either: 3.7 yards per carry on 17 tries. Those numbers, however, are hurt by his heavy usage as a short-yardage runner. After all, a successful run on a goal-to-go from the two-yard line only picks up two yards. Take away his six short-yardage runs and his yards-per-carry average comes up to a decent 4.7.

Were Kelly to suffer a significant injury, Pellerin hasn’t yet shown the ability to lead the offense. Patterson’s redshirt would immediately come off and you’d probably see the coaches scrambling to get him ready to take over as the starter. By then, however, the coaches will have missed their opportunity to ease in the true freshman during less strenuous situations.

(By the way, it’s certainly possible that Pellerin has authentically earned the job by outperforming Patterson in practice. Given the way Pellerin has been used, however, it doesn’t seem as though the coaches trust him as a true quarterback.)

Not that you can fault Freeze for the decision. Were Patterson to take garbage-time snaps and Kelly ended up staying healthy all season, Freeze would have effectively burned a year of eligibility for his QB of the future. To his credit, Freeze has done his best to keep Chad healthy by curtailing his designed runs. But even that’s a risk: Kelly was a notably more effective passer while he was averaging double-digit carries down the stretch of last season.

Thus is the life of a college football coach: constant risk assessment.