“You don’t know what to feel,” Hugh Freeze said when asked on Saturday what he thought of the yards gobbled up by his crew of beastly wide receivers during Ole Miss’ Grove Bowl game. “You want to high-five your receivers, but you can’t give up explosive plays. It’s difficult for a coach to leave scrimmages feeling good. Something went wrong for something to go right. You’ve got to look at both sides.”
This is the paradox of playing yourself in a spring game and one of the reasons that attempting to glean meaningful information from a televised scrimmage is an exercise in futility.
Still, after the most tumultuous offseason in the Freeze tenure—an offseason that included the departures of both coordinators and the most prolific passer in school history—getting to watch the team play an honest-to-god spring game was informative, at least to some degree. Freeze’s spring games have historically been loose scrimmages and drills (and he skipped it altogether last year), but on Saturday, he lined his full offense up against his full defense and let them go at it for 60 (continuously running) minutes.
Here are three of the biggest takeaways:
Jordan Ta’amu looks like a very solid backup QB.
The story going into the game was Shea Patterson and how he would look heading into his first full season running the offense, but the story coming out was his backup. Ta’amu, who recently transferred over from the New Mexico Military Institute, put on a show during extensive playing time, displaying brilliant touch on the deep ball while making frequent strikes downfield.
Here’s one of several gems, this one to Van Jefferson:
Ta’amu stripped off his white non-contact jersey in the second half and proceeded to show impressive athleticism. He doesn’t have wheels like Patterson, but he appears athletic enough that the offensive playbook wouldn’t have to change drastically were he called upon to step in. Ta’amu’s one-yard touchdown run with about four minutes left was the play that finally pushed the offense in front.
Ta’amu, who took more reps than even Patterson, seems to have locked himself into the No. 2 quarterback job. Jason Pellerin, who filled that role last year before giving way to Patterson after Chad Kelly went down, didn’t take a single snap behind center, instead spending the entire time wearing a contact jersey at the tight end position. That position change, which began as an experiment early in spring camp, seems to have become a permanent move, and Pellerin looked like a natural fit while making a number of grabs on Saturday. Freeze has said he wants to find a way to get the athletic Pellerin more touches, but his position change was always going to be dependent on Ta’amu’s ability to step into the backup QB gig. The Grove Bowl performances of both Ta’amu and Pellerin suggest the experiment has paid off.
Ole Miss’ receiving corps is filthy.
While Ta’amu was bombing downfield, a patient Patterson spent most of his time spreading the ball around to his talented receiving corps on screens, slants and hitches, content to let them work after the catch.
That they did. Here’s D.K. Metcalf turning a hot read into a long touchdown.
(Yes, that’s C.J. Hampton whiffing on the tackle.)
And here’s A.J. Brown breaking free on a slant to go 65 yards to the house.
Even during a spring game against a defense learning a new system, the stat lines of the Rebels’ top three receivers are something to ogle:
A.J. Brown: 5 receptions, 133 yards, 1 touchdown
Van Jefferson 6 receptions, 126 yards, 1 touchdown
D.K. Metcalf: 4 receptions, 98 yards, 1 touchdown
Add in Markell Pack (who was named the most improved offensive player of spring camp and made an impressive diving deep-ball snag on Saturday), Damarkus Lodge (who sat out the Grove Bowl with an injury) and Tre Nixon (who took the majority of punt returns), and this group could be damn near uncover-able this season.
Patterson, by the way, finished 21-of-30 for 341 yards and two scores and looked comfortable in Phil Longo’s new offense, which strives to simplify reads for the quarterback and put the onus of adjusting routes on the receivers themselves. Relying on this group of pass catchers seems like a good strategy, indeed.
The secondary gave up big plays but didn’t play as poorly as the numbers suggest.
The flip side to all of those big plays through the air is that a secondary which struggled to keep receivers in front of them last year had the same problem on Saturday. But at least two of the big plays came against a walk-on corner, and the rest should be put into the context that this is a young group of defensive backs learning a new system while facing what could be the SEC’s top receiving corps.
"Mainly, we have to get better on the back end in the safety area and we have to stay on top in coverage to eliminate explosive plays,” new defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff told the Ole Miss Spirit. “We got better in both areas in spring, but still have more to do, as you could see today when the offense hit us for three big plays where we lost our leverage on receivers."
Those three explosive passing plays put 21 points on the board before the 12-minute mark of the second quarter, but the offense didn’t find the end zone again until four minutes left in the game. The secondary—and the defense as a whole—stiffened considerably down the stretch. Broken plays and broken tackles clearly remain an issue, but McGriff, a former NFL defensive backs coach, can hopefully bring his young group along.