OXFORD, Miss. — If the timing had worked out differently, Shea Patterson might have wound up playing in the Big Ten.
The Ole Miss quarterback emerged as an elite football recruit in Texas and Louisiana, but until the fourth grade, he and his family resided in Toledo, Ohio.
Patterson’s grandfather, George, was a Toledo Rockets basketball Hall of Fame selection who played for the Pistons and toured 1 year with the Harlem Globetrotters (as a member of the Washington Generals). His father, Sean Sr., graduated from Toledo’s Bowsher High School and went on to play Division II college sports at Wisconsin-Parkside. And his older brother, Sean Jr. — still an analyst on Hugh Freeze’s staff — was a 2-time all-city quarterback in Toledo.
Oh, and the Pattersons happened to be huge Michigan fans, too.
“We had season tickets to Michigan. I thought he was always going to Michigan, or Notre Dame,” Sean Sr. told SEC Country. “It just wasn’t a real good time with the coaching changes at Michigan. He got offered by both places. Didn’t feel comfortable.”
Where Patterson feels comfortable, despite a litany of offseason changes and continued NCAA pressure on the school, is Ole Miss. Fair or not, it’ll be on the young gunslinger to help guide Ole Miss through the murky waters of a bowl-less season and a “penalty” recruiting cycle.
Speaking with those around the program, however, there’s reason to believe Patterson is up to that challenge.
Change is gonna come
Patterson’s primary recruiter Dan Werner found himself among Freeze’s offseason cuts, which naturally left the family disappointed. But this spring, the sophomore signal caller and first-year Rebels offensive coordinator Phil Longo have managed to jell quickly.
“I’m not sure Shea has never gotten along with a football coach. I don’t think he’s ever said, ‘Dad, I don’t like this football coach.’ He just loves football,” Sean Sr. said. “You commit to the school. You’re playing for that school, your fans, your teammates, name on the front. He’s fine with that.”
Longo comes to Oxford from FCS competitor Sam Houston State, where he ran a high-octane Air Raid scheme that produced big-time numbers on offense. Last season, Bearkats quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe threw for 4,602 yards and 57 touchdowns.
Whether that success translates to the SEC remains to be seen, but Patterson’s natural tools have his new quarterbacks coach excited. Given time and development, perhaps the Air Raid could turn him into a stat factory, as well.
“It’s a skill player-driven system. We create space both horizontally and vertically,” Longo told SEC Country. “Shea is a great space football player. He’s mobile. He can make any throw on the field. He can run the ball, and he can extend plays in the pass game with his legs. To put an athletic guy that can think and throw in this system, it’s a perfect fit.”
Also gone are Evan Engram, Damore’ea Stringfellow and Quincy Adeboyejo, 3 of the team’s top 4 targets from last season. Engram led the team with 926 yards receiving and believes he could be a first-round pick in the NFL draft later in April.
Even with those departures, there may not be as much drop-off at those positions as some think, either.
Ole Miss did an excellent job of stockpiling pass-catching talent in the 2015 recruiting cycle. Van Jefferson, A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf — all rising sophomores who saw action last season — are poised to emerge as Patterson’s primary weapons this fall.
And, to hear Ole Miss defenders tell it, the connection between Patterson and his wideouts already has made life tough during practice.
“He’s a monster,” cornerback Jaylon Jones said. “Really, on 1-on-1s, competing with A.J. and them, some of the balls Shea does throw, I know not everybody can throw that. I think he’s making me better. I’m challenging him, too. I’m getting him better, but he’s definitely making me better. … Back shoulders. Perfect fades.”
So the Ole Miss quarterback of the future enters his sophomore season with a new play caller, a new system and a new cast of targets. The one constant has been Sean Jr., his “secret weapon,” who actively is involved in giving his younger brother feedback and guidance.
“His brother’s always been his quarterback coach. He’s had him since he was 2 years old. He’s not allowed to coach on the field, but they watch a lot of film together,” Sean Sr. said. “That’s a huge plus for Shea.”
‘We like him, we trust him’
The world already has seen flashes of what Patterson can accomplish on the football field, though the circumstances were far from ideal. Last November, when Chad Kelly went down with a torn right ACL, Freeze decided to burn Patterson’s redshirt and give the freshman his first taste of college action.
The challenge was enormous. Patterson had been working with the scout team all season, and suddenly Freeze gave him command of the first-team offense on the road against then-No. 8 Texas A&M. But Patterson rose to the occasion, throwing for 338 yards, rushing for 64 more and scoring 2 touchdowns in his college debut. He quickly won the approval of his teammates. He drew more than a couple of Johnny Manziel comparisons, too.
Patterson’s next 2 starts proved much less fruitful, but the experience should prove valuable as he enters Year 2 looking to refine his craft.
“He’s a great, talented quarterback. We like him, we trust him,” defensive tackle Benito Jones said last week. “He’ll lead us to a lot of victories this year.”
Lead is the key word there. The offense last season belonged to Kelly, and now Patterson must take the reins of the unit and keep his teammates focused through a trying season. The bowl ban makes that task much tougher.
That cool November night in College Station, however, reminds us that Patterson — as calm and collected as he is dangerous with a football — doesn’t let the pressure rattle him.
“I think it’s a pretty mature group,” Longo said. “The attitude is control what you can control, and that’s winning football games. We have focused on putting the offense in on the field. The priority and focus on being good people, character people, being involved in the community. The character development that goes on here.
“None of that has changed. It’s continued. I’m just impressed that they’ve continued to focus on that.”