Inside the fall's most gripping quarterback battles. Part of SEC Week.
? The System. Ole Miss abruptly revamped the pro-style attack that had served it well with Jevan Snead pulling the trigger in 2008 and 2009 to suit the less pro-style talents of Jeremiah Masoli, a late-arriving transfer from Oregon who was more adept at challenging defenses with a well-executed fake on a zone-read call than with a downfield pass. The focus of the offense remained on burly tailback Brandon Bolden, which should be the case again behind a very large, very experienced offensive line as long as the scoreboard and down-and-distance allow it.
Still, Masoli wound up accounting for well over half of the Rebels' total yards and finished as the second-leading rusher, opening the door for another "duel-threat" type to move in with minimal disruption ? just as long as he does a better job holding on to the ball.
? The Heir Apparent: Randall Mackey. The four-way derby to replace Masoli seemed to be thoroughly dominated in the spring by Mackey, a former juco transfer on the verge of becoming the first big payoff of Houston Nutt's "farm system" strategy for handling academically imperiled recruits. (Mackey originally signed with Ole Miss shortly after Nutt's arrival in 2008, and returned last year after a two-year detour at East Mississippi C.C., where he once accounted for 600 total yards and seven touchdowns in a 75-71 win for the state championship.) In general, Mackey is a slightly slimmer, quicker version of Masoli ?�besides his juco roots, he's short, a legitimate threat as a runner, a competent passer and arrived accustomed to working from the shotgun ?�and all signs in the spring pointed to a smooth transition as long as Mackey keeps spitting out the right snap count.
But (also like Masoli) Mackey doesn't have the kind of arm that's going to keep safeties living in fear, and unlike Masoli, he doesn't have the benefit of a proven deep threat on the order of departing senior Markeith Summers, who averaged over 20 yards per catch and hauled in as many touchdown passes last year (6) as the rest of the wide receivers combined. If Mackey is the guy, the offense may be even more indebted to his legs to create plays than it was to his predecessor's.
? The Interloper: Barry Brunetti. It didn't hurt Mackey's status in the spring that his stiffest competition had no idea whether he'd be eligible in the fall ?�with just one semester under his belt at West Virginia, Brunetti had to convince the NCAA that his transfer to Oxford in was an effort to be closer to his ailing mother in Memphis to avoid a mandatory season in the bench. As soon as his request was approved in April, he pulled even for the job without taking a single snap.
Brunetti fits the same general profile as Mackey ? relatively short, mobile, inexperienced ?�but brings a much thicker frame and livelier arm to the passing game. And if he can't quite match Mackey's straight-ahead speed, he certainly runs well enough to win the race if coaches decide any combination incoming freshmen Nikolas Brassell, Donte Monceief, Tobias Singleton and/or Cody Prewitt are too good to leave to a scrambler.
? The Wild Card: Zack Stoudt. If NFL scouts were running the show, they'd be most interested in Stoudt, another juco transfer from Iowa Western C.C. who arrived at the start of the year with a 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame and immediate dibs on the role of "token pocket passer" after the previous occupant, Nathan Stanley, decided to transfer in the spring. Stoudt allegedly made up some ground on Mackey and Brunetti after a slow start in the spring, then proceeded to miss the spring game as penance for skipping a class.
? The Smart Money: Barry Brunetti. As clearly ahead as Mackey was for most of the spring, offensive coordinator David Lee said today it's been Brunetti who's separated himself as the likely starter over the summer and first few preseason practices, relegating Mackey and Stoudt to a dead heat for No. 2. Of course, Lee also insisted there's "not much" difference between any of the three, and that "all three of them can play" if necessary. But anytime a coach is willing to admit to a pecking order this early in the game ?�barring injury or meltdown ?�you can probably take it to the bank. Brunetti has Mackey's versatility with three times the remaining eligibility, and all the confidence he needs from the coaches.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.