If you read any preview of Ole Miss’ 2018 season prospects, you’ll encounter the words “offense,” “wide receiver,” “quarterback,” “offensive line” and “running back” in descending orders of frequency, with a sharp turndown into “defense” at the far bottom-right of the graph.
Four and a half of those above concerns involve the attentions and deliveries of Ole Miss’ starting quarterback in 2018, Jordan Ta’amu, who halfway through last season was quietly ushered onto the field as the man in charge after five-star Shea Patterson’s Week 7 knee injury.
Ta’amu, a lightly-recruited Hawaiian who played JUCO ball in Nevada, went on to amass 1,604 yards of passing and 16 total touchdowns over five consecutive starts. He had the highest yards per completion number in the SEC (9.7) and ranked second in both passer rating (164.5) and completion percentage (66.5).
Most fun about Ta’amu’s emergence as Ole Miss’ field marshall is the roundabout way he’s found himself a centerpiece of an SEC West offense, and a potent one at that. Here’s how that happened.
Ta’amu was a lightly-recruited three-star prospect.
Ta’amu’s path to Oxford began with back-to-back state titles at Pearl City High School in 2013 and 2014, impressive feats to be sure, but feats completed at a relatively low level of Hawaii high school football. That fact, according to Ta’amu’s high school coach Robin Kami, buried the state-winning QB on the country’s recruiting radars, thus limiting his national exposure. Without a sizable corpus of live game tape for FBS coaches to analyze, it’s understandable that little recruiting interest flowed his way.
Ta’amu didn’t receive a single D1 offer. In fact, the only school that offered him was New Mexico Military Institute, a JUCO in Roswell, New Mexico.*
“I had some partial DII offers and one junior college offer and it was to a military school,” Ta’amu said during SEC Media Days, per Saturday Down South. “I knew I had a DI arm and DI talent, so I took the junior college route.”
Ta’amu barely saw the field as a freshman, but as a sophomore took an opportunity to run NMMI’s offense. He exploded as a fierce dual threat QB, throwing for 3,014 yards and 32 touchdowns while running in seven on his own. Those numbers rated him the No. 4 passer among the JUCO ranks.
“Second season came around, first game, I threw eight touchdown passes and it just kind of blew up and a bunch of college coaches started hitting me up,” Ta’amu said.
Still, NMMI has no East Mississippi Community College-type caché, and despite winning the Southwest Junior College Football Conference player of the year award in 2016, his recruitment out of the JUCO ranks was subdued.
Minnesota and Ole Miss were the only Power 5 schools to extend offers.
*We cannot verify that Ta’amu doesn’t have extraterrestrial experience, or even what the eligibility requirements for that would look like.
Despite a lack of exposure, Ta’amu worked his recruitment into an SEC offer.
On a weekend that he was supposed to split visits between Oxford and Minneapolis, Ta’amu extended his Ole Miss visit and cancelled the trip to Minnesota. He had previous rapport with a coach on the Rebel staff and was immediately smitten when he stepped onto campus.
“Ole Miss stayed in contact with me throughout my season and offered me,” he said during media days. “I took a visit there and loved it. I hadn’t really heard of Ole Miss much, but I went there and it was amazing. Being with the coaches and the players, I just committed on the spot.”
Broadcasts this season will fill themselves with the “culture clash” steeped into the QB’s college football experience. Exotic Hawaii to straight-laced New Mexico Military to Ole Miss and north Mississippi. A disparate journey of college football, sure, but one Ta’amu has navigated in the composed, workmanlike fashion that defines his personality.
Offensive coordinator Phil Longo, apparently flummoxed at Ta’amu’s subdued nature during his initial visit to Oxford, straight up asked him if he liked playing football.
“As soon as coach Longo asked me that, I just told him I love the game of football. I’m just super calm,” Ta’amu told The Clarion-Ledger. “I know what I’m doing out there. A lot of people think I’m just going with the flow, but I do love this game.”
Blind chance handed Ta’amu the opportunity to thrive, and thrive he has.
Week 7 of the 2017 season. Second-and-five in LSU’s territory late in the second quarter. Patterson, considered to be the present and future of Ole Miss football, high-fakes a toss to the back, then spins and sails a rope over D.K. Metcalf’s leaping hands straight into a Tiger safety’s chest. On second look, Shea’s landing after release strikes an awkward pose.
At the time—that very moment, in fact—it was impossible to imagine what fallout would tumble from that single play. Shea returned to play a handful of snaps in the third quarter but we soon found out that he had torn his right PCL, ending his first full season as Ole Miss’ starting quarterback. What irony, then, that Ta’amu should enter an immediate and unforgiving quarterback job after a knee injury to Patterson, who himself had to replace Chad Kelly after a knee injury in 2016.
An Ole Miss fan’s experience of that time was perhaps complete, agnostic confusion. A little-known prospect out of Hawaii and the JUCO ranks didn’t prick ears among the Rebel football faithful, and so his assuming of steering duties was a blindingly unknown quantity.
But he thrived. Immediately. To finish out the final two quarters after taking over for Patterson, he threw seven-for-11 for 78 yards. Ta’amu was efficient, accurate, fast and smart. Patterson’s skill set glitzed out of high school, but he was mercurial in the pocket and at times questionable in his downfield decisions. Ta’amu exhibited a stabler head, and his command and confidence only improved from game to game, especially after a wild game-winning touchdown at Kentucky. In short, and to Ole Miss’ good fortune, Ta’amu’s immediate offensive moxie induced far less panic in those that were watching Rebel football with a vested interest.
Ta’amu would go on to best Patterson’s eight average yards-per-attempt by nearly two over the next five games, and suddenly an offseason quarterback battle was rumored, with one of those QBs—an elite high school prospect—coming off significant injury.
And so Ta’amu became the guy in Oxford.
From the outside, little can be known about Patterson’s reasons to transfer to Michigan this offseason, other than those publicly available remarks citing Ole Miss misleading him during recruitment. Benefit of the doubt should give Shea’s reasoning credence, and let’s just leave that there.
What is known is that Ta’amu, an overlooked three-star prospect from a state not heavily recruited across the college football landscape, inserted himself seamlessly into an SEC offense on a moment’s notice.
Part of Ta’amu’s immediate success at QB in Oxford can be attributed to Phil Longo’s offensive approach, which thrives on a complexity of simplicity, for lack of a better phrase. We’ve explained Longo’s point and grunt approach in his offensive scheming and in-game decision making—relying on a simple basket of base sets that allow for reads and options and space—and Ta’amu reads pre-snap defenses better than most everyone in the CFB business. “Football IQ” gets tossed around a lot, but this man knows what he’s looking at more often than not.
What’s reassuring and indeed encouraging here is the mere fact that if he continues on the same trajectory in 2018, Ole Miss’ offense contains wicked amounts of potential this fall. He’s got arguably the best wide receiver corps in the country to throw it. He has an experienced offensive line, including a three-year starting center in Sean Rawlings. He’s had a full nine months as top student on the playbook after acing the entrance exam last fall.
It’s a position that perhaps no one but Ta’amu expected him to be in.
“It motivates me a lot. Just for the little guys out here in Hawaii that don’t have or don’t get much looks,” he told KHON-2. “It doesn’t matter if you go to a junior college, don’t matter if you go to D-II, D-III, NAIA. Be the best that you can be and don’t be different for anybody else.
“Just go out there and be you and yourself and [put] Hawaii on the map. That’s what I’m doing.”