By Billy Watkins
The quarterbacks have said all the right things in each media session, but we expected that.
Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin has been poker-faced when asked if one or the other — Luke Altmyer or Jaxson Dart — has done enough in preseason camp to earn the starting role.
But the first play of the season is coming Saturday in Oxford at 3 p.m. against Troy. Somebody has to take the snap. We will know soon enough who the starter is for at least one game.
Will it be the older one? Altmyer, who will turn 20 in October, is Dart’s elder by seven months.
Will it go to the 2020-21 National Gatorade Player of the Year? That would be Dart, who is from Kaysville, Utah.
Will it go to the biggest? Dart is listed at 6-2, 220. Altmyer is 6-1, 200.
Former Rebel quarterback Bo Wallace, who won a quarterback competition in 2012 against Barry Brunetti, says some folks already know who it should be.
“The players can tell you who it is,” says Bo, the quarterbacks coach at Holmes Community College in Goodman. “They know who ‘the guy’ is. They’ve watched them both. And I would bet that if Kiffin really isn’t sure yet, he has a pretty good idea.”
Logic would say that Dart — the sophomore portal transfer from Southern Cal — has a slight edge, simply because of experience. He played in six games as a true freshman in 2021 and started three.
When starter Kedon Slovis was injured against Washington State in the second game, Dart replaced him and threw for 391 yards while completing 30 of 46 passes with 4 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. He played most of that game with a torn meniscus, which happened soon after he went in. It sidelined him for a month.
He returned in time to start the final three games in a circus-like season. (Head coach Clay Helton was fired after the second game.) Dart finished 117 of 189 for 1,353 yards, 9 touchdowns and 5 picks. His highlight tape is impressive.
“That doesn’t mean a whole lot to me,” Bo says. “That was in the Pac-12, not the SEC. He will be facing defensive backs that close a passing window a lot faster than he saw last year, and a lot faster defensive linemen will be chasing him.
“But no doubt the guy is talented. I’m glad he came to Ole Miss.”
Altymyer, the sophomore from Starkville, played in five games as a true freshman last season. His stats: 20 of 37 for 192 yards, 1 TD, 2 interceptions.
The touchdown and the interceptions came in the Sugar Bowl against No. 7 Baylor, a team that had four defensive starters drafted by the NFL
“Do people realize how tough the situation was that he got thrown into?” Bo says. “He has to go in for (an injured) Matt Corral on New Year’s night in the Superdome, which is as loud as it gets. The whole country was watching. Ole Miss was going for its 11th win of the season.
“What Luke did was awesome. That was a really good defense he went against. He made some plays. And, yes, he made some mistakes. But he will learn from those mistakes.”
So what is a quarterback competition really like? That’s why I called Bo.
“It’s a lot of pressure. And at that level, everybody is a competitor.” Bo says. “Realistically, in the quarterback meeting room, you’re going to be a good dude, a good teammate. But, honestly, you get excited when the other guy misses a question in the meeting room or misses a throw during practice. You’re not pulling against the guy, you’re just wanting to get the upper hand. Heck, you want to start. Every throw is important, every step of footwork is important. They film everything.
“Looking back, I thought Barry had the upper hand going into camp because of the way Coach (Hugh) Freeze liked to have a running quarterback. I had to win it in other areas.
“I didn’t find out until the Monday before the opener that I was going to start. I thought I did enough for the decision to be made earlier. But Freeze was hard on his quarterbacks, and I understand that now as a coach. He stayed on us during training camp so that when he threw us into the real fire, we could hopefully handle it.
“And he knew how to keep you on your toes during the season. We went to Alabama and got whipped (33-14) and suddenly everything was my fault. Freeze opened up the quarterback competition again. He said whoever practiced the best would start the next week against Texas A&M. I got the start and started every game the rest of my career.”
Kiffin has made it plain since he has been at Ole Miss that he expects his quarterbacks to protect the football and hit big plays.
“That’s a tough thing to handle during a quarterback competition,” Bo says. “You absolutely think about making the highlight reel plays, but you also hear the coach saying ‘protect the ball’ all the time. And you do focus on that.
“But at the same time, I don’t want a quarterback who throws a couple of interceptions and then gets timid and won’t try and make a play. I threw 17 (picks) my sophomore year and I just had the attitude, ‘I don’t care.’ You have to think like that. You’ve got to keep taking shots when they’re there. You can’t worry that you might throw one more pick.”
Things worked out for Bo. He threw for more yards (9,534) and touchdowns (62) than anyone in Ole Miss history not named Eli Manning. He led the Rebels to three bowl games and historic victories.
One thing to remember: Certain players look completely different in games than in practices. Sometimes, the lights are too bright. Other times, the lights boost a player to another level.
Some people around the team weren’t impressed with Bo during his first spring and preseason camp. But Freeze knew. “Wait until the lights come on,” he would say.
Bo was a Game Day guy. And I’m pretty sure that one of them, Altmyer or Dart, will also prove to be just that.
Two quick notes I thought readers might find interesting:
*** Like a lot of fans, Bo is not happy about CBS losing the 2:30 p.m. SEC feature game after the 2023 season.
“Man, growing up, when I heard that theme song start playing at 2:30, I knew I was about to see a great SEC game,” Bo says. “And as a player, nothing was better than playing at 2:30. I just can’t believe we won’t be hearing that music anymore when ESPN takes it over.”
*** Bo wishes he would’ve had the chance to make NIL money, now available to players for their name, image and likeness.
“I would’ve owned (the restaurant) Bojangles,” he says, laughing. “Their motto ‘It’s Bo time!’ was made for me and an NIL.”