By Billy Watkins
OXFORD — I had never seen anything like it at a spring game: One side (the Red team) going for a game-winning two-point conversion with no time left on the clock. The entire other side (the Blue team) gathered behind the end zone, yelling serious smack.
Final score: Red team 53, Blue team 52.
The big winner on that play, and for the entire spring, was Ole Miss quarterback Jaxson Dart, who avoided pressure and lofted a pass to Jordan Watkins for the victory.
It was on that same end of the field five months earlier, with a little more than a minute to play in the Egg Bowl, where Dart’s shovel pass to tie the game was tipped away.
I asked him him how it felt to cap off spring workouts with a successful two-point try.
He smiled and said: “Yeah, it was definitely fun. It was fun having the opposing team in the back of the end zone to create somewhat of a game-like atmosphere.
“I’m kind of scarred from two-point conversions from the Mississippi State game last year, so I just really wanted to score on this one and sort of brush that one off a little bit. It was nice.”
Confidence is a must if you’re going to play quarterback in the SEC. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound Dart should enter the summer with a bucket load of it.
Consider coach Lane Kiffin’s comments about him over the past month.
After only a couple of practices, Kiffin said Dart “has gotten stronger and has looked really good and much improved.”
A week later, Kiffin again praised Dart: “He’s looked great. It may be strange to say about a returning starter, but he’s probably one of our most improved players. He looks better physically, mentally, everything. I’ve been very excited about him so far.”
Apparently, Dart has made huge strides in his footwork and decision making. He threw just one interception during scrimmages this spring.
Kiffin is not one who freely hands out praise. In fact, it gets your attention when he does. So it makes me wonder why some people haven’t been really listening to Kiffin.
Yes, the Rebels brought in two highly-regarded quarterbacks through the portal: senior Spencer Sanders from Oklahoma State and redshirt freshman Walker Howard from LSU.
Both played well in the spring game. It’s been a little tougher to evaluate Sanders, who is nursing a throwing shoulder back to full strength. But his numbers as a four-year starter for the Cowboys speak for themselves: 9,553 yards passing and 67 touchdowns. He’s 23 years old and quite sure of himself.
Howard showed why he was a four-star recruit and ranked the fifth-best quarterback in the 2022 class. He can scoot. He has great touch on his passes. He probably throws the best deep ball of the bunch. And Kiffin has mentioned his intangibles and leadership skills.
There is no need to rush Howard. Remember, Eli Manning sat for two seasons behind Romaro Miller.
Kiffin said for the umpteenth time Saturday that he wants quality depth at every position. The fact that he signed Sanders and Howard was no knock on Dart. It was a necessity.
The message boards have been full of predictions, and a lot of them have Dart taking a backup role this fall.
You won’t read that prediction here.
It’s strange how anyone could have watched Dart play last year — his first with any extended playing time in college — and see him this spring as a backup. His 2022 season stats: 614 yards rushing, 2,974 yards passing, 226 of 362 passing (62 percent), 20 TDs, 11 interceptions.
We’re talking about a guy who was a four-star recruit and rated the No. 10 QB nationally in the 2021 class. He was one of Southern Cal’s prize signees.
With Ole Miss ending the regular season with losses to Alabama, Arkansas and State, people wanted somebody to blame. Quarterbacks are always a handy target.
In those three losses, two of them by a total of eight points, Dart was 69 of 105 (66 percent) with four TDs and one interception. He also rushed for 108 yards.
People remember the failed two-point try vs. State. But they seem to forget the 99-yard drive in the final minutes to give Ole Miss a chance. On that drive, Dart completed 7 of 8 passes for 78 yards, including a 23-yard TD to wideout Dayton Wade.
And if you’ll remember, media reports late in the season had Kiffin headed to Auburn. Can you imagine what it does to a team — assistant coaches and players — when rumors like that are non-stop?
When asked after the Egg Bowl if the rumors affected the team down the stretch, Dart said: “I mean, it’s kind of tough sometimes when things are just thrown in your face. I feel like, as a team, we’ve been able to stay together as we can. “
Dart also chose that time to deliver a message to his teammates: “My mindset is just whatever happens, I’m going to be here and I’m going to be able to grow and get better. I hope it’s Coach Kiff so we can continue to grow with each other.”
That’s what leaders do.
I’ve even read a few messages about Dart being a “California guy” — meaning soft. These were the most insane comments of all.
First of all, he is not from California. He played one season at Southern Cal but he’s from Kaysville, Utah. He’s not a beach boy. He’s a hunter and took down a mountain lion during the off season.
Did these critics see Dart nearly get his head ripped off on a facemark against Alabama? He just kept playing. He took shot after shot after shot last year — especially in the bowl game loss to Texas Tech — and there were times the parent in me was saying, “Stay down a few minutes, dude.” But he stayed in the game.
He had to adjust off the field, too. He talked about it last December before the bowl game: “I think my relationship with the community of Oxford and Ole Miss … it’s kind of been on a rollercoaster a little bit. Coming from the West Coast, it’s a little bit different atmosphere and taken me some time to get used to. But I’ve really found a joy of being here. I love the people and the support this community brings.”
No, he’s not one of the shiny new toys.
He’s much more than that.