Why John Rhys Plumlee is my most intriguing SEC player of 2020
Last year, John Rhys Plumlee was the reason that Ole Miss was the most entertaining non-bowl team in America. The relationship he developed with Rich Rodriguez was like watching a late-2000s buddy cop action movie. Sure, it wasn’t going to win an Oscar and it didn’t appease the high brow (the college football elite), but if you were flipping through channels on the middle of a fall Saturday in 2019, you could have done a whole lot worse than watching a couple of hours of that.
That’s in the past, though. The sequel is set to hit theaters this fall. Dare I say, it’ll be even better than the original.
Part II of the Plumlee experience features a new sidekick. The frustration over the firing of RichRod was instantly replaced with the excitement over Lane Kiffin’s arrival. If we learned anything from his travels in the 21st Century, it’s that Kiffin adds intrigue everywhere he goes.
Consider that at the foundation of why Plumlee is my most intriguing SEC player of 2020.
If you read that sentence and laughed because you think Plumlee is destined to be a receiver in Kiffin’s offense, well, I don’t think there was anything funny about that sentence. For all the things you can criticize Kiffin for — he never has clean exits, Joey Freshwater, not being a proven Power 5 head coach, etc. — you can’t deny how well he adjusts his offense to his quarterback. His crowning achievement is that he won 5 conference titles (as an offensive coordinator at Alabama and head coach at FAU) with 5 different quarterbacks.
I already dug into that earlier this offseason because I wanted to answer the question on the minds of many Ole Miss fans — how will Plumlee fit into Kiffin’s system? In a word, “well.”
Rodriguez provided an early blueprint for how to use Plumlee. Keep the throws short, get him plenty of designed runs out of the spread, let those talented skill players serve as decoys on misdirection plays for Plumlee and watch him go to work.
Speaking of that, Ole Miss ranks No. 23 in the country with 78% of its offensive production back from a season ago. Texas A&M is the only SEC team that returns a higher percentage of its production. Among those Ole Miss weapons back is go-to wideout Elijah Moore, who caught more than 3 times as many passes and he recorded 4 times as many yards as any Ole Miss receiver. His fake dog pee celebration overshadowed a solid season in an offense that wasn’t exactly “pass-happy.”
That’s because Plumlee was limited as a thrower. The arm strength isn’t on the level of Matt Corral. Clearly. Plumlee seems 10 times more likely to short-hop a receiver than he is to overthrow one. From an efficiency standpoint, repeating last year’s 53% passing for 6.1 yards per attempt would make for some viral Kiffin sideline moments in 2020.
But that’s not to say Plumlee can’t throw. If you want a simple, 1-read ball to the corner of the end zone 35 yards downfield, he can make that play:
John Rhys Plumlee highlights from the Missouri game for those that wonder why I’m so high on his potential.
I feel like not enough people have watched him play, he was dynamic the moment he stepped on the field vs. Cal.
— SEC Mike (@MichaelWBratton) April 12, 2020
Yeah, I’m high on his potential, too. And that’s not just because of how electric he was in the LSU game. The 4 best defenses he faced last year were Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Mizzou. Those defenses all finished in the top 32 nationally. In those games, Plumlee averaged 252 yards from scrimmage (113 passing and 139 rushing) with 12 combined touchdowns (8 rushing, 4 passing). Ole Miss averaged 27.3 points in those contests with a true freshman running a relatively 1-dimensional offense.
Will Kiffin at least try to throw more than the 27.7 attempts that the Rebels averaged last year? That depends. It depends on how much Plumlee can truly improve as a passer. With RichRod, the question was whether Plumlee could become a 2020 version of Pat White (sometimes I wish I could just transport Plumlee back to the late 2000s and watch him run RichRod’s offense at West Virginia). With Kiffin, the question should be whether Plumlee can become the 2020 version of Blake Sims.
That is, become a guy who doesn’t look like a prototypical Kiffin fit who ends up looking far more impressive as a passer than anticipated. Kiffin’s single best coaching accomplishment might have been that 2014 season with Sims. I’d argue Sims had a leg up on Plumlee as a thrower, but even though the Alabama signal-caller had better straight-line speed, it’s the Ole Miss sophomore who is superior at making people miss in space.
You can present all the data about Plumlee’s passing struggles in 2019. I get that. I’d counter by saying the guy who had the most rushing yards on 3d down of any returning SEC player (175) can still move the chains, especially when he makes plays like this:
.@OleMissFB’s John Rhys Plumlee showed out against the No. 1 team in the country!
212 rush yards & 4 rush TDs 🔥 pic.twitter.com/6eI0qagj3y
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) November 17, 2019
(In case you we were wondering, that LSU defense had 6 guys drafted. And no, Plumlee’s day wasn’t just the product of Grant Delpit’s hobbled ankle.)
It’s strange to see that there’s actually been some backlash to Plumlee being a thing. The limited passing game is at the root of why he’s not embraced in 2020 in the same way he would have been embraced in 2010. I mean, we’re living in a world in which there are people who still can’t appreciate Lamar Jackson. Call it a combination of that and Plumlee’s reputation as the “good at everything” kid, and yeah, that’s the type of thing that would rub haters on college football Twitter the wrong way.
But for anyone who thinks that’s what Plumlee is, I challenge you to watch him. Watch the way he takes on contact against elite defenses at 6-0, 192 pounds (he averaged 3.61 yards after first contact). Watch the way he keeps a play alive by turning a 10-yard loss into a positive gain. Watch the way he runs away from defensive backs when he gets into the open field.
Most important, watch the way he develops with Kiffin. The more I think about what I saw from Plumlee in 2019, the more I think we’re getting ready to see a unique talent do some fun things in the SEC.
Last week when SEC Network analyst Gene Chizik put together his SEC quarterback rankings, some were surprised to see that he had Plumlee at No. 5. I wasn’t. When I ranked my top 5 a few months ago, it was exactly the same as Chizik’s 5. Ironically enough, I actually watched Plumlee’s first career start with Chizik at SEC Network studios in Charlotte. I remember that Chizik, who knows a thing or 2 about how difficult it is for a quarterback to run like that against a Nick Saban defense, came away impressed by Plumlee.
That day, Plumlee ran for 109 yards and became the 2nd quarterback to ever hit the century mark against Saban’s Crimson Tide defense (fellow baseball/football player Kyler Murray was the first in 2018). Future 2nd-round safety Xavier McKinney said afterward that Plumlee was faster than Alabama was expecting and that “he’s going to be the truth in a couple of years.”
If you ask me, I wouldn’t wait that long. Get in line now so that you have a good seat for the Plumlee sequel.