Heading into his fifth year at Ole Miss, Hugh Freeze successfully landed his highest-rated class yet on National Signing Day 2016. This was due in part to signing three different five-star rated players at three crucial positions.
The Rebels' top-rated addition is OT Greg Little, who as a sophomore and junior was the starting tackle for former Texas A&M and current Oklahoma QB Kyler Murray, while he was ripping off consecutive undefeated seasons at the highest level of Texas high school football. At 6'6 and 305 pounds with three years of playing a high level of football under his belt, Little is about as close as a freshman OL can come to being ready to start in the SEC West.
A little further down the ranks of five-stars you'll find Benito Jones, an explosive defensive tackle who will try to soften the blow of losing Robert Nkemdiche to the NFL.
It's hard to do better than landing two big, powerful and athletic players at crucial points in the trenches on either side of the ball. But Freeze also landed five-star QB Shea Patterson, potentially the most exciting Rebel recruit ever. In him, Ole Miss is hoping it has landed a recruit who will be ready to take over for Chad Kelly era in 2017 and preclude the need for another JUCO QB.
Here's a peek at what kind of QB Patterson is and how he'll fit into that vision:
The perfect spread QB
Patterson isn't the first chaos-wielding spread QB we've seen come out of high school, and he has some traits shared by guys like Baker Mayfield and Johnny Manziel. But Shea has a more well-rounded skill set as a prospect that makes it more obvious how his game could translate to the college game and even beyond.
Here's his senior tape and a glimpse into his skill set:
Patterson was a 7-on-7 hero thanks to his ability to quickly process defenses and throw accurate strikes, but at IMG Academy, his game was primarily defined by his love for inducing chaotic settings in which he dominates. The play call often didn't matter on passing downs for IMG last year, because Patterson would simply buy time and get out of the pocket, either scrambling for yardage or firing a well-placed dart to crush the soul of the defense.
Unlike many high school scramblers, Patterson already has a knack for using his legs to buy time to find receivers rather than picking up the yards and hits.
Even better, he has a lightning quick release and shocking accuracy when throwing either from the pocket or on the run. He loves to find outside receivers running comeback routes to the sticks when he's running loose, which is nearly impossible to defend on third down without exceptional contain play from the DL.
He's listed by 247Sports as a pro-style prospect, which helps to illustrate both the absurdity of the categories as well as the way in which they are commonly misused when describing high school talents. Patterson is very capable of moving his eyes across the field through his progressions and delivering accurate throws from the pocket. Perhaps more impressively, he has already grown in the art of hitting hot routes to punish a blitz.
Patterson also loves to operate outside of the pocket, where he can make use of his lateral quickness. He posted a 4.86 in the SPARQ 40 but ran a 4.24 in the shuttle. While he lacks breakaway speed, he can move quickly in a short area and is hard to corral in the open field, particularly when he's opening up lanes for himself with the threat of a pass.
Defenses usually love to blitz pro-style QBs, but when you play that game with Patterson you can expose yourself to a world of hurt when he starts free-wheeling. In reality, Patterson is a true dual-threat who will lean more heavily on his arm and decision making at each new level of football, but whose legs are a big part of what makes him special.
Working with Freeze in the Ole Miss spread
Patterson is fortunate to be walking into a situation with an established starter with a remaining year of eligibility in Kelly. There are two important ways in which Patterson and the Ole Miss offense will need to develop before he's ready to let out a Rebel yell at the head of this offense.
The first is how Ole Miss utilizes the QB to help its run game. At 6'2 (maybe) and 195 pounds, Patterson is a bit small to be running the ball regularly in the SEC, particularly in staple Ole Miss plays like Power-read and QB counter that turn the QB into a downhill runner. In fact, the QB and the occasional Nkemdiche carry have often supplied the only downhill element of the Ole Miss offense in the last few years, although the Rebels are finally replacing 165-pound Jaylen Walton as the starting RB.
Here's what the last few years have looked like for Ole Miss QBs:
|107 carries for 500 yards||4.7 ypc||10 rushing TDs|
|121 carries for 199 yards||1.6 ypc||5 rushing TDs|
|131 carries for 355 yards||2.7 ypc||6 rushing TDs|
|143 carries for 390 yards||2.7 ypc||8 rushing TDs|
Playing QB at Ole Miss under Freeze has required a high threshold for hits, and at 215 pounds apiece, Kelly and Wallace were better built for it than high school senior Patterson. There's a chance he'll be playing at that weight before his college career is over, but a few hundred workout sessions and protein shakes stand between him and that destination.
With Patterson at the helm, the offense would need to emphasize quick decision making and accurate throws in the run/pass option (RPO) game to free up space for a RB to take those downhill carries rather than Patterson. For instance, here's an RPO that Ole Miss would regularly use in the red zone in 2015 that perfectly suits Patterson's skill set:
Having the QB make a quick read and either a hand off to a powerful back or an accurate throw to a freakish athlete on the outside can provide an even more deadly numerical advantage to the offense than using the QB as a runner.
The next big adjustment for Ole Miss will be using Patterson's abilities as a passer to unlock the full potential of the passing game. With an endless array of option routes and RPOs built into its spread, the Ole Miss offense is designed to try and turn its quarterbacks into killers who can dominate after the snap. However, it's been held up by Kelly's need for simpler reads that emphasize vertical bombs and Wallace's penchant for throwing picks.
Ideally, Patterson will basically function as a point guard in the pick and roll.
His vision, ability to throw from different angles and positions, and quick release are eventually going to make him an ideal fit for this system. For instance, here's a combo Ole Miss has used in the past but could really make hay with if Patterson were at the helm, the stick route combined with a curl-flat combo from an empty formation:
Patterson begins the play by reading the safety rotation. If there are two deep safeties like in the diagram above, he starts off the "y-stick" passing progression which should probably feature an open stick route, run in this instance by the "H" receiver.
If there is only one deep safety, the read beings with the curl-flat progression on the backside, using the leverage of the weakside linebacker to tell him if "X" will be open on a curl, or whether to quickly check down to "R" running a flat route:
This kind of NFL-level concept requires the ability to read the field quickly, as well as an understanding of what to do in the event of a blitz, and then throw a very accurate dart. When it's humming and the receivers are great athletes, it's lethal and virtually indefensible at the college level. This is the ultimate upside of a Patterson-led Ole Miss offense.
It'd be wise to bet on Patterson reaching a proficient level in this offense within a few years of practice while continuing to bring the "wielder of chaos" element of his game as well. Within time he can turn the Ole Miss spread into a devastating combination of concepts where an athletic, quick-release QB is distributing the ball in a talented, well-spaced offense and some off-schedule plays that are virtually impossible to prepare for. Or at least, that's the hope in Oxford. If it doesn't work out, Freeze can probably find another crafty JUCO and make the most of it.