You start a true freshman quarterback in college football and you can only guess what you will get.
Ole Miss and Southern Miss both did it last Saturday with decidedly mixed results:
▪ For Ole Miss, five-star recruit Shea Patterson completed 25 of 42 passes for 338 yards and two touchdowns in a 29-28 victory over Texas A&M at College Station. Patterson directed four second-half scoring drives and helped the Rebels overcome a nine-point fourth quarter deficit.
▪ For Southern Miss, three-star recruit Keon Howard completed 12 of 24 passes for 230 yards and a touchdown and ran for 98 yards and a touchdown in his debut. BUT, Howard lost four fumbles and threw an interception, leading to 28 points in Old Dominion’s 51-35 victory over USM. Both Patterson and Howard made their college football debuts on the road in their team’s 10th game of the season because of injuries to accomplished senior quarterbacks.
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Patterson is 19 years old, Howard 18. Compare them with the most famous quarterback in Mississippi history who played as a true freshman. Brett Favre was 17 years young on Sept. 19, 1987, when he first played for Southern Miss. The story is worth re-telling.
Favre had begun the fall training camp as the sixth string quarterback on a roster with six quarterbacks. He was a last-day recruit, signed only after USM lost a committed quarterback to Alabama. The thinking was Favre was a big, strong kid who could play safety or perhaps linebacker if he didn’t pan out at quarterback.
USM opened at Alabama and got hammered 38-6. Favre did not get off the bench.
In fact, Favre assumed he was going sit out that freshman season. USM had an open date the week following Alabama before a home game with Tulane. Jim Carmody, the Golden Eagles’ head coach, couldn’t help noticing Favre’s phenomenally strong arm. For the first time in his long football life, Carmody later said, he “heard” passes.
Nevertheless, Favre didn’t expect to play that day against Tulane. He and his roommate Chris Ryals spent the night before the game drinking copious amounts of beer. Legend has it when Favre took the field that hot, muggy day, he promptly went to the sidelines and threw up.
Things were not going at all well for USM, who trailed Tulane by 10 points in the third quarter when Carmody decided he had nothing to lose (except a year of eligibility for Favre) by putting the 17-year-old in the game with 5:49 left in the third quarter.
Favre’s first pass was a short route to wide receiver Chris McGee. It was a fastball, which was really the only pitch Favre knew how to throw at that point in his career. The ball sort of embedded in McGee’s gut.
The crowd, which had been booing, came alive. Favre kept throwing darts. USM kept moving the ball and scoring touchdowns. The end result: a 31-24 victory over a good Mack Brown-coached Tulane team that defeated Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Virginia Tech and Iowa State that season.
Favre made his first start the next week against Jackie Sherrill and Texas A&M in Jackson. The Aggies won 27-14 but Favre played well. The job was his.
But here’s what we need to remember about freshman quarterbacks: As great at Favre became – which quite obviously was one of the greatest in history of the sport – he was hit and miss as a true freshman. He completed only 41 percent of his passes. Yes, he threw 15 touchdowns, but he also threw 13 interceptions. USM averaged all of 6.5 yards per Favre passing attempt in 1987. When USM defeated Jackson State 17-7 in the first meeting ever between the two schools, Alrick Young, whom Favre had replaced as a starter, came off the bench to help the Eagles win.
More than anything else, Favre showed in 1987 he had the “it” factor, that intangible great quarterbacks must have and can’t be taught.
Interestingly, that’s what Hugh Freeze talked about Saturday night after Patterson’s performance against Texas A&M.
“I’ve known all along he had that ‘it’ quality about him,” Freeze said.
“It” could take him a long way. “It” did for Favre.
Rick Cleveland is a Jackson based syndicated columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.