In the past four months, Ole Miss football has had the privilege of experiencing three phases, with each phase putting roughly 75,000 miles on the odometer. First, there was the Head Coach Is A Big Fan of Prostitutes phase (good times!). After a month of contemplating that plot twist from the college football scriptwriters, we moved into the warm embrace of the This Team Is Not Good phase.
Now, due to Shea Patterson’s injury during the LSU game, we find ourselves in the NEXT MAN UP phase*. Jordan Ta’amu, who prior to the LSU game had taken about 10 snaps this season, is now in charge of pulling the levers for the Ole Miss offense.
*To be followed by the NCAA Has Saved College Football From Ole Miss phase.
If you had told me before the season that Ta’amu saw the field in anything other than a run-out-the-clock situation, I would’ve assumed Matt Luke also believed in taking the best player off the field inside the 10-yard line, and it didn’t go well. Nothing against the hotbed of New Mexico junior college football, but the charts and spreadsheets do not suggest New Mexico junior college football players are the key to success.
However, much to everyone’s surprise, Ta’amu parachuted into Saturday night’s game just before halftime and led a 10-play, 66-yard drive that resulted in a field goal, which cut LSU’s lead to seven. Oh, and he did that in 1:17.
Ta’amu was poised and looked like he knew exactly what was happening, which was the opposite of that time Fratcannon and Switchblade attempted to relieve Dr. Bo against Arkansas in 2013. Not only did he seem in control, Ta’amu showed he has the physical abilities to keep the offense from sinking in Sardis and potentially being eaten by a blob patrolling the water.
I realize the sample size is small and the situation was time sensitive, but I wanted to look at what Ta’amu did well and what Ole Miss might run more of with him taking the snaps.
We start with the first play of the drive, per standard operating procedure. Ole Miss puts its receivers at or beyond the numbers, which is usually an indication they want to run (this also applied to last year). Two people to pay attention to are the right tackle and right guard, who will pull and create some magic.
As the play develops, the receivers give Ta’amu a passing option (though I doubt there was any thought of passing), while the pulling linemen are about to smother the two LSU defenders in their paths.
All Ta’amu has to do is read the unblocked LSU defender, who is the only player near himself and the running back.
This is the play that got the drive going, and one we’ll probably see more of the rest of the season. Ta’amu appears to be a more capable open-field runner than Patterson, who is quick and dangerous when the play starts to break down, but was never a dynamic runner on designed plays (either because that’s not a strength or Ole Miss was terrified of letting him do so).
One play later, Ole Miss decides to let Ta’amu spin it. A.J. Brown runs a corner route and DaMarkus Lodge goes with a slant. He knows pre-snap that the safety, who is in the middle of the field, cannot help on a corner route.
What impressed me is that Ta’amu had no hesitation. I don’t know what his first read is, but he knows he’s got man coverage on those two receivers, which is what Ole Miss wants.
He ends up trying to hit Brown, but slightly overthrows him (you could argue Brown broke off his route too soon, as he awkwardly turned for the ball). The most important thing to note is where the throw is — outside to the sideline where only Brown has a chance to catch it.
The next play, Ole Miss goes back to the first play of the drive, but changes things up by moving Eric Swinney.
The left guard and left tackle go to work (they actually screw up the blocking, but the linebacker commits the violation of LOST GAP INTEGRITY), and the defensive end is left to deal with Ta’amu and Swinney.
Ole Miss wastes almost no time before getting the next play off, which includes bringing the wide receivers inside the numbers in a more traditional set.
Again, the really impressive thing is Ta’amu quickly reading the defense and finding a receiver. Here, he’s checking out his first read while dropping.
By the time he’s set his feet, he’s moved to his second or third read on the other side of the field.
He finds an open receiver and delivers the ball with some pace.
Meanwhile, on the LSU sideline after a timeout:
As you might expect, Ta’amu did make at least one really bad mistake that mercifully didn’t kill the drive. Same formation as before, but Swinney moved to his right.
Pressure collapses the pocket and he takes off. The good news is he keeps his eyes downfield, looking for a receiver. The bad news is he tries to thread it around a linebacker who is four yards away, while Van Jefferson is by himself on the sideline.
Jefferson was only going to pick up a few yards, but a better option than the ball being batted into the air and an entire stadium inhaling to brace for the impending agony.
Fortunately, no LSU defender was able to intercept the pass, but I DID NOT MUCH CARE FOR THOSE 1.4 SECONDS.
After that near-disaster, Ole Miss throws out another formation and a play that takes advantage of LSU playing man coverage. The three wide receivers to the far side take three defensive backs with them, pulling a defender away from the short side of the field, which is where Ole Miss wants to run.
Phil Longo calls on Ta’amu to put his legs to use with a play from the Sam Houston State days that is essentially a quarterback draw (a very good tutorial can be found here). The play calls for Sean Rawlings to help one of the guards block, then slide up to a linebacker. Swinney follows Rawlings and blocks the other linebacker.
To help matters, Arden Key is in the midst of a twist, which runs him out of the play, and Ta’amu has space to negotiate.
Finally, one last throw by Ta’amu that was inches from being perfect. But again, the most important thing is that he recognizes what is available to him and tries to take advantage.
He knows pre-snap that Lodge on a corner route is probably available because the safety, if he holds in the middle of the field, is so far inside he cannot help on a ball thrown to the sideline.
Yet again, Ta’amu puts it only where only the receiver has a shot at it.
I don’t expect Ta’amu to terrorize defenses for the next month, but there are signs that he may be perfectly fine for what Ole Miss asks him to do. At the very least, his initial performance should not fill us with dread, which is all you can really hope for with Ole Miss football in October 2017.