The future of the Ole Miss quarterback position will arrive earlier than anticipated. Hugh Freeze confirmed to ESPN’s Chris Low on Friday that five-star freshman Shea Patterson, the country’s top 2016 quarterback recruit, will play this Saturday against Texas A&M. Freeze had originally hoped to redshirt Patterson to preserve a year of eligibility, but Chad Kelly’s season-ending injury and the specter of missing a bowl game (the Rebs have to win two of their last three), forced Freeze’s hand.
ESPN is reporting that Patterson will not only play, but start over redshirt freshman Jason Pellerin, who’s been the regular backup all season and filled in against Georgia Southern last week after Kelly limped off with a knee injury. This seems like the most logical move, after all—if you feel comfortable enough to rip a redshirt off of a true freshman quarterback at the tail end of a disappointing season, you should feel comfortable enough to start him.
Sure, burning a year of eligibility without a guarantee of immediate success is a gamble by Hugh Freeze, but there are some very compelling reasons to believe that the No. 1 quarterback recruit in the class of 2016 will be able to swim if tossed into the deep end.
1. By most accounts, Shea is a polished prospect and a quick learner.
After watching Patterson in the 2016 Army All-American Bowl, SB Nation recruiting expert Bud Elliott came away impressed with the youngster’s awareness and on-field maturity. Here’s what he told me back in January:
I think that Shea is probably the most polished kid, in terms of quarterbacks in the 2016 class. I really think that showed in the Army game. Looking at him, I think he's the only guy who's out there consistently throwing in rhythm and doing so accurately. And that was really the main difference. Everyone else was kind of in "see it, throw it" mode, whereas Shea was throwing with considerably more anticipation and I think that's something that's hard to learn at his age and something that's gonna serve him well early in his college career.
I think Hugh Freeze has done a great job of simplifying stuff for Chad Kelly and Bo Wallace but with Shea, you may have a kid with a higher football IQ than those guys. Maybe he's not able to fit the ball into super tight spaces down the field, but instead capitalize on making quicker decisions and throwing the ball earlier, which perhaps gives him a bigger window in which to throw the ball. If you're late to recognize, the throwing window shrinks and it's nice to have that laser. But if you're quicker on your reads and you're quicker in understanding what defenses are gonna do, you have a little more leeway.
And keep in mind in mind that Patterson was at spring practice as an early enrollee, meaning he’s been learning Freeze’s offensive system for over seven months.
2. Patterson’s mobility will help keep him out of trouble.
If Patterson does play against A&M, his first college action will come behind a razor thin Rebel line that could potentially be without three starters against one of the most dangerous defensive fronts in the country.
The good news is that Patterson is no stranger to running for his life: his O-line at IMG Academy wasn’t that great, which routinely left him relying on his mobility to escape pressure. Escaping Myles Garrett (who’s been hobbled by injuries, at least) is a completely different animal, but Patterson will nevertheless be able to move around if things break down.
The play call often didn't matter on passing downs for IMG last year, because Patterson would simply buy time and get out of the pocket, either scrambling for yardage or firing a well-placed dart to crush the soul of the defense.
Unlike many high school scramblers, Patterson already has a knack for using his legs to buy time to find receivers rather than picking up the yards and hits. Even better, he has a lightning quick release and shocking accuracy when throwing either from the pocket or on the run. He loves to find outside receivers running comeback routes to the sticks when he's running loose, which is nearly impossible to defend on third down without exceptional contain play from the DL.
Case in point:
If protection breaks down or Patterson finds himself confused on a read, he can buy more time with his legs.
3. He has one of the SEC’s deepest and most physical receiving corps.
It helps ease the burden of making correct reads and delivering precise passes when you have a group of receivers that averages 6’2, 205. These guys are rangy and sure-handed—deep threat Quincy Adeboyejo is the only receiver with a catch rate of less than 61 percent. Hulking figures like Damore’ea Stringfellow and A.J. Brown provide a security blanket on the outside while quick, interior threats Evan Engram and Van Jefferson (who have a combined 68 percent catch rate on 128 targets) routinely gain the separation that makes for easy completions. If Patterson can use his mobility to buy time, his receivers will win one-on-one matchups downfield.