Yes, Ole Miss has to face Texas A&M without star quarterback Chad Kelly, who tore his ACL against Georgia Southern last week. But let’s not forget that the Aggies, who suffered a humiliating, Playoff-wrecking loss in Starkville last week, are missing their own starting quarterback: Trevor Knight was ruled out for the remainder of the regular season after trudging off with a bum shoulder in the first half against Mississippi State.
So while Hugh Freeze has been weighing the freshmen options of Jason Pellerin or Shea Patterson, Kevin Sumlin has been prepping junior Jake Hubenak, who completed 11 of 17 passes for 222 yards, two touchdowns and a pick in the second half against State last week. Hubenak’s only other action this season came in garbage time against non-con cupcakes, but he did show some ability in his only career start last season in the Aggies’ bowl game.
After Sumlin managed to drive off two former five-star quarterbacks in the span of a week last December, he had to dredge Hubenak up from the bottom of the depth chart to start against Louisville in the Music City Bowl. A&M lost, but Hubenak, who’d only been on the team for four months, completed 28 of 48 passes for 307 yards, two scores and an interception. That performance wasn’t enough to convince Sumlin, who reeled in Knight as a transfer out of Oklahoma.
As Freeze pointed out to The Clarion-Ledger earlier this week, Hubenak “is a more accurate passer” than Knight.
“We actually faced him last year some,” said Freeze, who saw Hubenak go 6-for-11 for 46 yards after taking over for a struggling Kyle Allen late in Ole Miss’ 2015 win. “I thought he threw some good balls then and the times he came in this year, he's been effective throwing the football."
What Hubenak lacks, however, is Knight’s ability to create on the ground. In the start against Louisville, Hubenak ran for just 7 yards on 11 carries. Excluding the half against State, Knight averaged 75 rushing yards per game and 8.6 yards per carry this season.
There’s been a lot of talk this week about Freeze having to reconfigure his pass-happy offense if he starts Pellerin, but Sumlin will have to make his own changes to adjust for Hubenak’s skill set.
"I can't say exactly what they're going to do, typically coaches are going to play to the strengths of their players and he certainly seems to be more gifted as a thrower than as a game breaker in the running game," Freeze said.
That could be good news for a Rebel defense that’s repeatedly lost containment against mobile quarterbacks this season. FSU’s Deondre Francois, Bama’s Jalen Hurts and Memphis’ Riley Ferguson all punished Ole Miss with their legs, particularly in critical third-down situations. The Aggies should be able to stay plenty balanced on the ground by handing off to electric freshman Trayveon Williams, but not having to worry as much about the QB’s legs should help simplify things for a the struggling linebackers and young safeties.
Knight isn’t the only key injury for the Aggies.
- Defensive end Myles Garrett, the possible No. 1 NFL Draft pick, has been hobbled by leg injuries and only played on third downs against State. A limited Garrett could be a critical reprieve for Ole Miss’ young tackles (Greg Little is expected to start on the blind side with Rod Taylor still hurt).
- Starting right guard Connor Lanfear tore ligaments in his knee on the same play that Knight was knocked out of the game for State. His season-ending injury will require a reshuffling of the entire line.
- Cornerback Priest Willis missed each of the last two games and his status on Saturday is unclear. It doesn’t help that reserve defensive back Noel Ellis had season-ending surgery to repair a torn groin muscle last week.
- Sumlin said starting receiver Ricky Seals-Jones, who only has 13 catches this season, hasn’t been healthy since the Arkansas game.