QB Curve: Jordan Ta'amu gives Ole Miss a fighting chance. Does he have one of his own at the next level?
Quarterbacks: There are a lot of them! Each week, QB Curve will keep you up to speed on the game’s most important position by putting a different SEC signal-caller in the spotlight and putting the rest of the field in perspective. Previously: Tua Tagovailoa vs. Jalen Hurts … Jake Bentley.
QB of the Week: Jordan Ta’amu
Typecasting: The Opportunist. These days, most SEC starters are heavily recruited, blue-chip athletes who have been groomed to be a professional-grade quarterback from the womb. By comparison, Ta’amu seemed to arrive at Ole Miss out of nowhere: A Hawaii native, he was ignored completely by D-I programs out of high school and started for just one season at the New Mexico Military Institute. (The NMNI is located in Roswell, better known by far for attracting UFO enthusiasts than for producing football players.) He was an afterthought in the Rebels’ 2017 recruiting class, recruited more or less specifically to serve as a backup to the 5-star, face-of-the-program incumbent, Shea Patterson. Even among diehard Ole Miss fans, if Ta’amu’s tenure in Oxford had come and gone without him leaving the bench it would have barely registered.
But it has not come and gone that way, and it was apparent almost immediately after Ta’amu stepped in for an injured Patterson last October that he was a cut above some run-of-the-mill JUCO insurance policy. In his first start, Ta’amu carved up Arkansas for 368 yards passing on 12.3 per attempt. In his second, he bombed Kentucky for 382 yards and 4 touchdowns — including the game-winner with seconds to play — and was named the SEC’s Offensive Player of the Week. In the Egg Bowl, he threw two long TD passes in a season-defining upset that sealed Matt Luke’s promotion to full-time head coach. Late start notwithstanding, Ta’amu led all SEC passers with at least 100 attempts in completion percentage (66.5) and yards per pass (9.7), and finished second in overall efficiency (164.5).
Most important, he gave Ole Miss a proven option in 2018 when Patterson (predictably, by that point) opted to transfer to Michigan. So far, Ta’amu has picked up in the Rebels’ first two games where he left off last year in Starkville, putting up gonzo numbers in a pair of shootout wins over Texas Tech and Southern Illinois. Against those defenses, that’s par for the course.
But the degree of difficulty ramps up to 11 this weekend against Alabama, which has a long track record of leaving promising young quarterbacks broken and traumatized in its wake. Last year Bama annihilated the Rebels, 66-3, with Ta’amu as a bystander. If he holds up well enough against the Tide to make this round a competitive, four-quarter game, opposite a last-place defense that promises to give him precious little margin for error, then the speculation about his future beyond Oxford can officially begin.
Jordan Ta'amu can throw that deep ball 👀 pic.twitter.com/7ZatnOsyqA
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) September 1, 2018
The stats speak for themselves, and they’re not artificially inflated by a glut of screens and cupcake opponents. Ta’amu does benefit enormously from throwing to an NFL-ready receiving corps, two members of which — A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf — look like potential first-rounders next spring. They come down with contested catches, turn short gains into long ones, and all the other things top wide receiver prospects do. They benefit from Ta’amu, too, though, especially on downfield passes where his accuracy shines.
Through two games this year Ta’amu has 11 completions of 30 yards or longer, best in the nation and five more than any other quarterback in the SEC. And while it’s true that the secondaries at Texas Tech and Southern Illinois are in danger of being recalled by the government for excessive flammability, it’s also true that many of those big plays have been dead-on dimes from Ta’amu that made his target’s job as easily as possible. Short of being left completely uncovered, this is as little work for a 36-yard touchdown as Brown (working from the slot to the top of the formation) will ever have to do:
A.J. Brown with a Sluggo route from the Slot, beats and stacks Justus Parker vertically for 6 pic.twitter.com/jRgVAODiBt
— Brad Kelly (@BradKelly17) September 4, 2018
Brown is open; still, that had to be a perfectly timed and placed throw and it was. The same route (minus the double move) worked for touchdowns against SIU in the first half …
When in doubt, A.J. Brown pic.twitter.com/WgoxyZoj2Q
— Ben Garrett (@SpiritBen) September 8, 2018
… and again in the second, both on perfectly placed balls that carried Brown into the end zone in stride:
— Football Dungeon (@DuaneLively) September 8, 2018
Ta’amu flashed some enviable downfield accuracy last year against SEC defenses, as well, notably on this 58-yard strike to Metcalf at Kentucky. On this one, take note of the way Ta’amu uses his eyes to influence the UK safety toward the right sideline before setting up to throw to the left:
— Greg Brandt (@devywarehouse) November 4, 2017
That’s not 3-star JUCO stuff. Ta’amu and Metcalf hooked up for a 63-yard touchdown in the Egg Bowl on a similar play, albeit in that case on a less-than-perfect throw that required Metcalf to adjust. It is nice to have targets who expand the definition of qualifies as “accurate.”
On that note, at the risk of seeming to endorse the end-zone fade as a concept — please, offensive coordinators, stop calling the end-zone fade! — even I have to admit that, given the size and talent on the receiving end … fine, Ta’amu throws one hell of an end-zone fade.
DK Metcalf gets some air to haul in this TD. pic.twitter.com/9zcsmTvAj0
— Greg Brandt (@devywarehouse) September 8, 2018
And although it doesn’t show on the stat sheet, there’s some compelling evidence from Ta’amu’s 2017 debut against Arkansas that he’s mobile enough if given the chance. In that game, he had two rushing touchdowns — one them from 49 yards out, on a QB draw straight up the gut — along with a couple of fleeting glimpses of escapability in the pocket and accuracy on the run.
But the play that shows just how good Ta'amu is this play. He gets outside the pocket and throws a perfect ball to only where receiver A.J. Brown could grab it pic.twitter.com/khYmfUvNLZ
— Garrett Kroeger (@GKroegs) August 7, 2018
Again, there’s not a whole lot of that in Ole Miss’ offense, which rarely utilizes the quarterback on designed runs and generally prioritizes getting the ball out of his hands as quickly as possible. (Often, especially against the likes of Alabama and LSU, that’s necessary for the quarterback’s own safety.) But when necessary Ta’amu has given hints of some sneaky athleticism.
“Sneaky,” because from a raw talent standpoint Ta’amu is limited. His official height and weight (6-2, 210 pounds) put him right on the edge of NFL viability, and both numbers might be generous. He’s relatively slight, and despite his comfortable accuracy in the 30- to 40-yard range, he doesn’t appear to have the kind of next-level cannon for an arm that would allow him to consistently drive the ball much beyond that. High-velocity throws — i.e. NFL throws: deep outs, middle-of-the-field routes into tight-windows, off-balance throws — are not a standard part of his repertoire.
Obviously, that distinction is much more relevant against the Alabamas and LSUs than the Texas Techs and Kentuckys, and Ta’amu has yet to encounter the former. His stat line benefited enormously last year from the fact that he didn’t see the field at Alabama, which completely overwhelmed the Rebels’ offensive line with Patterson taking every snap, or at Auburn (which, ditto). He got in just a few series against LSU after Patterson was knocked out of that game, which were nondescript. His most mediocre performance as a starter came in a 31-24 loss to Texas A&M, which notched three sacks and a go-ahead pick-six as the direct result of pressure.
Even Ta’amu’s star turn at Mississippi State was defined almost entirely by three big plays; otherwise, he was 7-of-19 against the Bulldogs for 49 yards and a pick.
That leaves a lot to prove this year against the upper half of the division, and especially against the kind of bump-and-run coverage favored by those teams. Imposing as Ole Miss’ receivers are vs. the vast majority of the schedule, it’s pretty much a given there’s not going to be much separation against Bama, or against LSU in two weeks, or (probably) against Auburn next month. The game plan on those occasions might be geared toward protecting him to an extent, but at the end of the day the Rebels aren’t about to call for Ta’amu to hand off 50 times. He’ll have to be on-point into much tighter windows than he’s had to deal with to this point, in the face of pass rushers who figure to be arriving much more quickly.
Ta’amu’s presence saved Ole Miss from being sucked into a black hole in the wake of Patterson’s injury and premature departure. Before he was hurt, Patterson was accounting for a higher individual share of his team’s total offense than any other player in the country; there was zero expectation at the time that his obscure, untested understudy would pick up the slack to the extent that Ta’amu did.
His return this year softened the blow of Patterson’s transfer — a lot of Ole Miss fans will insist Ta’amu would have held off a fully rehabbed Patterson for the starting job, anyway, some of whom might actually believe it — and kept the Rebels from having to throw true freshman Matt Corral into the fire too soon. (Corral got his first live snaps last weekend against SIU, but still has a chance to redshirt this season under the relaxed redshirt rule.) Matt Luke owes an awful lot to Ta’amu, literally.
Ole Miss is still banned from playing in a bowl game this season, but with Ta’amu the Rebels will almost certainly maintain their perch as one of the league’s most explosive offenses, and could conceivably flirt with eight or nine wins. If not, it will have a lot more to do with the defense than with the quarterback. And whether or not he levels up against Alabama this weekend, or winds up getting a fair shot at the NFL in the next few years, he’s likely going to be fondly remembered in Oxford for quite a while.
Jalen Hurts status update: A report surfaced ahead of Alabama’s 57-7 romp over Arkansas State that Hurts had made the decision to redshirt this season after being relegated to QB2 behind Tua Tagovailoa, which makes sense. Although he played extensively in the season opener against Louisville, under the new redshirt rule Hurts can play in up to four games — say, the SEC Championship Game and Playoff, for example — without forfeiting a year of eligibility, leaving him with two years to play elsewhere as a graduate transfer. You know, hypothetically.
But why would a guy who was mulling over his limited opportunities to play this season choose to spend one of those opportunities in a random blowout against Arkansas State? Just as he did in Week 1, Hurts came off the bench against the Red Wolves in the second quarter and wrapped up the game in the second half. That leaves him with just two more appearances if he plans on preserving this year, which from the looks of it he does not. From the looks of it, the plan is to keep on doing just what they’ve been doing until further notice, without regard to redshirts, transfer rumors, or anything else.
Nick Saban won’t address the question directly, but he has been adamant since January about keeping Hurts involved even as Tagovailoa continues to distance himself as the starter. He’s said repeatedly he’s willing to use them both, and has done exactly that in each of the first two games. He’s said the new redshirt rule isn’t factoring into their plans for Hurts at all. Is it possible … he means it?
The other side of the Storey: Last week, Arkansas’ Ty Storey was riding high on the depth chart after he clearly outplayed the nominal starter, Cole Kelley, in the Razorbacks’ Week 1 win over Eastern Illinois. This week, the roles are reversed: Storey turned in a dismal first half Saturday at Colorado State, hitting just 5-of-13 attempts with 2 interceptions before yielding the reins back to Kelley at halftime.
For his part, Kelley picked up where Storey left off in the opener, connecting on back-to-back TD passes on Arkansas’ first two possessions of the third quarter. (Although let it be noted for the record that the second of those scores was a basic “tap pass” to RB T.J. Hammonds that broke for 64 yards — i.e., a running play that was misleadingly credited to Kelley’s passing stats because he technically shoveled the ball forward rather than handing it off. The rest was all Hammonds.) From that point on, though, the offense bogged down, failing to score again on the way to a 34-27 defeat in a game Arkansas was favored to win by two touchdowns.
That leaves the Hogs … uh, where, exactly? Kelley has been more accurate through the first two weeks, hitting 71.4 percent of his passes to Storey’s 56.7 percent, and has yet to throw a pick; Storey has been more effective at pushing the tempo, a key component of coach Chad Morris’ philosophy. Neither showed any semblance of consistency against a CSU secondary that had already been incinerated in its first two games. Morris has one more week to figure something out — preferably by kickoff of Saturday’s non-conference test against North Texas — before the SEC West gauntlet arrives in full force.
Matthew Stafford Arm of the Week: Terry Wilson
The initial book on Wilson, an Oregon transfer via the JUCO ranks, suggested his legs posed a greater threat than his arm. So far the part about his legs looks about right: In his first SEC start, Wilson gashed Florida for 105 yards rushing in an historic upset, including a 24-yard TD run that’s going to keep every defensive coordinator on Kentucky’s schedule awake at night. But the Gators also found out the hard way that, actually, the kid can sling it.
18/9/8 — Kentucky's Terry Wilson hits 54-yard touchdown pass to Lynn Bowden Jr. vs. Florida. pic.twitter.com/cNI3OK5WpH
— College Football Clips (@CFB_Clips) September 11, 2018
That throw, covering 54 yards on 3rd-and-16, was a thing of beauty. And although Wilson only attempted 16 passes overall — with Wilson and Benny Snell Jr., the Wildcats are decidedly a run-first outfit this year, unless something goes very wrong — fear of the deep ball will help ward off creeping safeties and eight-man boxes. The threat is real.
QB Curve Power Hour!
Ranking the SEC’s starting quarterbacks heading into Week 3.
1. Tua Tagovailoa, Alabama. Tagovailoa has been on the field for 13 full possessions this season, nine of which have ended with Bama touchdowns. (The rest: Two punts, one fumble, one field goal.) At that rate, he could find himself in the thick of the Heisman race whether he ever winds up taking a relevant snap after halftime or not. (Last Week: 1)
2. Drew Lock, Missouri. Wyoming’s defense isn’t the best Lock will see this year, by a long shot. But it was a top-20 unit against the pass in 2017, and Lock lit the Cowboys up Saturday like a pile of kindling. He remains on track for a huge senior year. (LW: 3)
Emanuel Hall using his speed again. pic.twitter.com/HDtbVt7tLJ
— Greg Brandt (@devywarehouse) September 9, 2018
3. Jarrett Stidham, Auburn. Stidham threw one beautiful touchdown pass against Alabama State and didn’t exert himself much otherwise. LSU’s on deck for one of the defining games of the season. (LW: 2)
4. Jake Fromm, Georgia. Fromm wasn’t perfect against South Carolina, but if you’re willing to overlook an early interception, then 15-of-18 for 194 yards and a touchdown is pretty dang close. Oh, and the Gamecocks’ D is probably the best he’ll face until a November date with Auburn, at the earliest. (LW: 4)
5. Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State. Fitzgerald showed zero hesitation as a runner in his first game back from that horrible ankle injury in the Egg Bowl, and the new coaching staff showed zero hesitation to call his number. Eventually, he’ll have to prove it with his arm if the Bulldogs are going to max out their potential against the likes of LSU, Auburn, and Alabama; in the meantime, as long as he’s piling up the rushing yards against everyone else it looks like his shortcomings as a passer will hardly matter. (LW: 7)
6. Jordan Ta’amu, Ole Miss. Tagovailoa is an unfair measuring stick for Ta’amu in many ways, especially on a weekend when Tua will be going up against Ole Miss’ defense while Ta’amu gets Alabama’s. Still, if he manages to keep the Rebels within striking distance in the fourth quarter then it will be time to start thinking about Ta’amu as a real pro prospect. (LW: 6)
9/8/18—Texas A&M's Kellen Mond 9-yard TD pass to Kendrick Rogers vs. Clemson pic.twitter.com/2hGlhysWIe
— College Football Clips (@CFB_Clips) September 10, 2018
7. Kellen Mond, Texas A&M. Like everyone else, I was hugely impressed with Mond’s breakthrough turn against Clemson, so much so that I considered bumping him even higher on the list based on that performance alone. I’ll curb my enthusiasm for now, until we have a better idea of what to expect from one week to the next. But let’s just say if his ascent ends here it will be a disappointment. (LW: 10)
8. Jake Bentley, South Carolina. Adjusting for the competition, Bentley’s stat line against Georgia (30-of-47, 269 yards, 1 TD, 2 INTs) was respectable enough, and at least one of those picks wasn’t his fault. With his skill set, though, it’s past time to graduate from “respectable.” (LW: 5)
9. Kyle Shurmur, Vanderbilt. Shurmur turned in another steady, efficient afternoon in Vandy’s 41-10 win over Nevada. The bar is significantly higher this week at Notre Dame, the first of several games over the next six weeks that will go a long way toward determining just where he’ll fall on 2019 draft boards, or whether he will at all. (LW: 8)
10. Terry Wilson, Kentucky. It’s been a long time since Kentucky had a quarterback who was more of an asset in SEC play than a liability, possibly going all the way back to Andre’ Woodson in 2007. (Randall Cobb was never a full-time QB, don’t even try.) Wilson might be raw as a pocket passer, and he committed two turnovers in the win at Florida. But he is a key part of the running game, and as long as UK keeps producing on the ground he looks imminently capable of breaking the streak. (LW: 14)
11. Joe Burrow, LSU. Burrow remains a blank slate, statistically, but hasn’t done anything to refute the hype that accompanied him from Ohio State and helped lift him into the starting job. Saturday’s trip to Auburn will be his first big SEC road test, which should tell us a lot more. (LW: 9)
12. Feleipe Franks, Florida. For what it’s worth, Franks looks more comfortable as a sophomore than he did in 2017. But his completion percentage against Kentucky (44.7 percent on 38 attempts) was still well below the Mendoza line, and he struggled to challenge the Wildcats downfield — the only pass that gained 20 yards or more went to a running back. There’s still time for the light to come under Dan Mullen; it hasn’t yet. (LW: 11)
13. Jarrett Guarantano, Tennessee. Guarantano got out of the West Virginia game with life and limb intact and followed that up with a nondescript outing against East Tennessee State. That’s just fine, and for a sophomore in a rebuilding offense, “just fine” might have to do. (LW: 13)
14. Ty Storey/Cole Kelley, Arkansas. The Razorbacks have the league’s only unresolved depth chart, and not for the reason they’d hoped. Unfortunately, the way the schedule sets up it looks the situation’s only going to get worse over the coming weeks before it can get better. (LW: 12)