The headlines for the Ole Miss Rebels this offseason largely revolve around one question: who will take over for Matt Corral under center?
Corral, drafted by the Carolina Panthers in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft, helped lead Ole Miss to its first 10-win regular season in program history last year, and now, his quarterbacking position is left to one of two rising-sophomores: Jaxson Dart and Luke Altmyer.
Following the first day of fall camp for the Rebels on Wednesday, head coach Lane Kiffin and both of his quarterbacks were made available to the media, and questions swirled around the heads of all three about who will take the reins of Kiffin’s famous offense.
“We’re looking for the guy who leads the team and moves the team the best,” Kiffin said. “I think competition is great for anybody, especially with both of them being young. I think that makes you better.”
Competition can make you better, but it is often speculated how that competition affects those involved. Are there hard feelings? Or is the players’ relationship one of harmony and helping the other improve in the game?
In the Ole Miss quarterback room, its two leaders for the starting job heaped praise on one another after practice Wednesday.
“Mine and Luke’s relationship is really good,” Dart said. “Obviously, we’re in a QB battle, but we’re just competitors. Just trying to make ourselves better. That’s part of the game and part of athletics in general.
“Relationship-wise, I’ve been able to learn a lot from him,” Dart continued. “He’s a super smart player, and some of the things I’ve never experienced on the football side, he’s been able to help me a lot with that. We help each other out a lot.”
Altmyer played the majority of Ole Miss’ Sugar Bowl appearance in January after Corral went down with an ankle injury, and now in the midst of a quarterback competition, he is aiming to help lead the program into the future as well, even in giving his prime competition some help in practice.
“There are a lot of silent battles you have to deal with,” Altmyer said. “It’s there, and it’s a business. The outcome for me and Jaxson is definitely huge, but I think we’re both taking it day-by-day. We bounce ideas off of each other, and it’s been really cool.”
The story of how Dart and Altmyer both came to Ole Miss are very different. Dart, a Utah native, signed with USC out of high school and transferred to the Rebels this offseason. Altmyer came from Starkville High School (Miss.), hailing from the same hometown as Egg Bowl rival Mississippi State.
He, however, committed to the Rebels out of his prep days, and he has been the understudy for the aforementioned Corral since his arrival on campus.
“I learned a lot from Matt [Corral] and how he interacts with his teammates,” Altmyer said. “How he connected in the locker room is really unique. It didn’t stop here. It carried on outside of the building and behind closed doors. I think it’s always important to grow those.
“I think being a leader is being a servant: putting the needs of others before yourself. You’re just trying to be a person and yourself.”
Although Altmyer has been in Oxford a year longer than Dart, that doesn’t mean that he is a shoe-in for the starting job. Dart is familiar with adversity and competition, and he is using some of his high school experiences to better prepare himself for this fall.
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“I don’t expect anything,” Dart said. “I’ve always been somebody who works for what I have. I didn’t get my first full-ride offer until my senior year. I’ve always tried to work and strive after the things that I want.”
Those “dry years” in early high school helped push Dart to work harder, but they also taught him mental lessons.
“Patience is a big one and putting your head down and working hard,” Dart said. “I trained with a lot of the top recruit kids since I was a sophomore in high school. I always felt like I was up there with them, but the recognition wasn’t there.
“Times like that were stressful, especially in COVID when we didn’t know if we were going to have a season.”
Whoever takes the first snap for the Rebels this season against the Troy Trojans on Sept. 3, neither quarterback is necessarily going to “replace” Matt Corral, but they are both learning and growing in this offensive system leading up to opening week.
“The offseason is definitely a long one,” Altmyer said. “Spring is really long. A lot of growth occurs there. It’s a challenge to stay focused and find new things to get better at. New ways to connect with your teammates. I’m super glad to be where I am.
“There are a ton of things you train and hit on during the offseason: mechanically and being in the film room. Just being a student of the game.”
For Altmyer, growing mechanically is a focus, but Dart has the additional challenge of familiarizing himself with the offense prior to week one.
“Just growing my comfortability within the system,” Dart said. “I feel a lot better now than I did at the start of spring, and that’s just been time. Continue to grow relationships with my coaches and players on the team with us.
“If you’re able to be comfortable in the position that you’re in outside of football, that’ll help your play. That part is really big for me.”
Dart is just one of a multitude of Ole Miss newcomers who came via the transfer portal this offseason. Head coach Lane Kiffin has stressed the importance of these new faces buying in with the familiar ones, and that will remain a focus throughout preseason camp.
“We all came here for the same reason: we want to win,” Dart said. “I know we’re all super hungry. Having those guys is really good to have.”
“There are so many guys who will make impacts who have never put on an Ole Miss uniform,” Altmyer said. “You learn how to deal with it day-by-day. Let it happen naturally. Things will come together, and that bond will grow.”
You can follow John Macon on Twitter at @JMakeGillespie.
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