The moments are rare. But I’ve seen things happen on a football field that made the entire stadium rumble.
*Southern Miss running back Sammy Winder soaring like Superman over an Ole Miss defender to score in 1980.
*Defensive back Senquez Golson leaping over an Alabama tight end to snag an interception in the end zone and secure Ole Miss’ victory over No. 1 Alabama in 2014.
*Mississippi State cornerback Robert Bean jumping to deflect a Romaro Miller pass in the 1999 Egg Bowl, then somehow kicking the ball to teammate Eugene Clinton, whose return set up a game-winning field goal.
And on Saturday, I saw Ole Miss freshman quarterback John Rhys Plumlee race 47 yards to the California 15 on his first collegiate play.
There were better runs in college football Saturday. But it was Plumlee’s speed that made the fans at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium gasp and scream and shake their heads in disbelief.
Speed is a funny thing. You can talk about it, just like you speak of the wind. And you can see it on TV, but you can’t “feel” it.
You can feel speed in person.
And when Plumlee streaked around right end, he made defenders look as if they were wearing hunting boots. Only a Cal safety with an angle and not too far to go prevented a touchdown.
Again, you had to be there to truly appreciate it.
“I found out how fast he was the first day of practice,” says junior linebacker Lakia Henry. “He went around me and I was like, ‘OK, I have to take a different angle on this guy.’ Now, he’s always competing in sprints with all the fastest guys on the team.”
One teammate told him after the game: “You didn’t even stretch before going in. How fast would you have been if you had stretched?”
Plumlee, once a Georgia commit, didn’t have time to stretch. He entered the game with 4:52 remaining when starter Matt Corral exited with a rib injury. Ole Miss was trailing 28-13.
Plumlee’s speed got Cal’s attention, too. On the next play, he ran a read-option to running back Jerrion Ealy, who also is fast. Real fast. The Cal linebackers were staring at Plumlee. Ealy took the handoff and scored to make it 28-20.
Of course, the game ended in a dispute that will be written about for decades. Receiver Elijah Moore was ruled down a gnat’s whisker from the goal line, though it looked as if the ball crossed it. Cal won, 28-20.
This is what I took from the game: Corral is a warrior, and a talented one. He will play when his ribs are healed enough. But it is obvious Plumlee offers offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez a weapon that defenses despise: Speed at the quarterback position.
How fast are we talking about? Plumlee, listed at 6-foot, 192 pounds, has been timed at sub-4.4 at football camps. I remember sports writers who covered the Class 6A state championship game last year between Plumlee’s Oak Grove Warriors and Horn Lake raving about his speed. Richly talented Horn Lake, despite Plumlee throwing for 348 yards and four touchdowns, won, 31-27.
Plus, Plumlee appears to have that “it” factor, the intangible power that can’t be faked or manufactured. The moment is never too big, and he makes those around him better.
After Ealy’s score, Plumlee completed 7 of 7 passes for 82 yards, including a 41-yard strike on the run to freshman receiver Demarcus Gregory.
Plumlee’s athletic ability has never been a question. He’s a two-sport standout who will also play baseball for the Rebels.
And one other thing to remember: Georgia, now one of the elite programs in the country, doesn’t recruit average players.
His path to Oxford was a long and winding road.
Plumlee, rated a four-star, had offers from you name it. In February 2018, Plumlee received offers from Alabama, Auburn, Notre Dame, Georgia, Nebraska and Ole Miss. Clemson had Plumlee rated among its top four quarterback prospects. But after the Tigers received a commitment from Taisun Phommachanh, a four-star recruit from Connecticut, they recruited Plumlee as a slot receiver.
Alabama recruited him hard, first as a quarterback, then as a defensive back.
“(Tide coach) Nick Saban told John Rhys, ‘We just want you on our team,’ ” says Denton Plumlee, John Rhys’ dad. “But he had always said he wanted to play quarterback in the SEC and play in a good baseball program.”
Auburn’s Gus Malzahn wanted him as a quarterback.
But Plumlee saw Georgia as the perfect fit.
Ole Miss and State were recruiting him as a defensive back.
Ole Miss’ offensive coordinator at the time, Phil Longo, said he liked John Rhys but he thought he had recruited one that better fit his system — Grant Tisdale, a current freshman at Ole Miss.
State coach Joe Moorhead said the Bulldogs had already committed a quarterback, four-star Garrett Shrader, now the Bulldogs’ starter.
Plumlee committed to Georgia on June 15, 2018. He shut down recruiting.
But sometime in December, Smart phoned Plumlee and asked him to “blueshirt.” That meant he couldn’t join the Bulldogs’ team on scholarship until August. If he wanted to enroll in summer school and work out with his new teammates, he would have to foot the bill.
Smart explained that he didn’t want to go through spring practice with only one scholarship quarterback, Jake Fromm. Plumlee had refused to enroll in January because he wanted to play his senior baseball season.
He reopened his recruiting.
“Alabama was the first to hear of it, and they were calling immediately,” Denton Plumlee says.
So, too, were State and Moorhead. Following Plumlee’s performance in the state championship game, State began recruiting him as a quarterback.
Ole Miss reentered the picture when Rich Rodriguez was hired as the new offensive coordinator and saw tape of Plumlee.
“I also have to say that even after John Rhys committed to Georgia, Coach Peeler kept calling,” Denton Plumlee says, referring to Ole Miss receivers coach Jacob Peeler. “He really hung in there. And Coach Rich Rod let us know quickly that John Rhys fit his offense and that they wanted him as a quarterback.”
From Jan. 11 to Feb. 1, Plumlee visited Ole Miss, State, Auburn and Florida State. Smart continued to call and sell Georgia. And while on the way to Florida State, Plumlee received an offer from Ohio State.
“John Rhys told him, ‘Coach, I don’t know y’all and y’all really don’t know me. Thank you, but no thanks,’ ” recalls Denton Plumlee.
On Feb. 4, Plumlee decommitted from Georgia and committed to Ole Miss. He signed with the Rebels two days later.
Before we forget, let’s get the name straight. It’s John Rhys (pronounced like rice) Plumlee.
“My wife, Lori, saw that name in a baby book and we liked it,” his dad explains.
So why did Plumlee choose Ole Miss?
“John Rhys has a strong faith, and I think he felt led there,” he says. “Coach Luke assured him, ‘You’re in the quarterback room and we’re not going to move you.’ ”
I ask his dad to recap his feelings when Plumlee, an engineering major, entered the game.
“It happened so fast,” he says. “I saw that Matt was hurt and John Rhys went in. After they scored and got the ball back, I watched John Rhys go back in. That’s when I got nervous. To be honest, it’s probably the most nervous I’ve ever been when one of my children was playing sports.” (The Plumlees’ eldest child, Rhyan, was a standout volleyball player at Oak Grove. She is studying engineering at Alabama. Their youngest, Reese, started last year on the high school volleyball team as an 8th grader.)
“One thing I knew was that John Rhys was prepared,” his dad says. “He goes over and watches film with the coaches of the upcoming opponent. And he’s always been studious. That’s one thing Ole Miss will never have to worry about with him, he’s going to prepare.”
Denton Plumlee, a Justice Court Judge in Lamar County, is among those who believe Moore scored on the controversial play.
“If the official is talented enough to spot the ball at the one-inch line, then that play should have been reviewed. There is little doubt about that,” he says.
After the game “John Rhys was down about the loss,” he says. “But he came out of the dressing room and spent some time with a few special needs kids who know him by name.”
His dad points out that Plumlee’s first career pass completion went to freshman Dannis Jackson of Sumrall. “They’ve known each other for years,” he says.
And those watching on television may have noticed Plumlee and No. 2 from Cal embracing after the game. That was Jordan Duncan, the Bears’ leading receiver in the game (5 catches, 63 yards and a touchdown) and Plumlee’s former teammate at Oak Grove.
Ole Miss is 2-2 overall, 1-0 in the SEC entering Saturday afternoon’s game with Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Alabama is favored by 37 points.
But there are seven games remaining after that, and it should be interesting to see the growth of Plumlee and if the competition makes Corral improve.
A notable quote came out of Saban’s press conference on Monday. When talking about Ole Miss, Saban said: “The quarterback is playing really well for them — and the backup quarterback came in and played even better.”
Yes, he did.