Is Ole Miss football's quarterback room deep enough to move John Rhys Plumlee to receiver?

Nick Suss
Mississippi Clarion Ledger

OXFORD — It's hard to find a backup quarterback anywhere in college football with better name recognition than John Rhys Plumlee.

There's good reason for that. Not many backup quarterbacks ran for 1,000 yards as true freshmen, are key cogs for top-10 baseball programs or have their piano-playing past referenced on nearly every game broadcast.

And, perhaps most crucially at this point, not many backup quarterbacks led their team to bowl wins by making crucial plays at wide receiver.

Plumlee made it clear after the Outback Bowl that he sees himself as a quarterback. He's started eight games at quarterback and scored 17 touchdowns in two years. But in the 2021 Outback Bowl Plumlee subbed in as a slot receiver and caught five passes for 73 yards. That included three catches for 55 yards on the Rebels' game-winning touchdown drive with less than five minutes remaining.

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That performance has led to speculation about whether Ole Miss views Plumlee as a receiver or quarterback. That speculation can't really go anywhere this spring since Plumlee is playing baseball.

Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin said Plumlee has dropped in for a few quarterback meetings this spring when he's had spare time. 

In Plumlee's absence, though, Ole Miss' other quarterbacks have found the opportunity to improve their stock. In redshirt sophomore Kinkead Dent's eyes, this spring has been about preparing him to be the man to take over for starter Matt Corral if necessary.

"That's all (offensive coordinator Jeff) Lebby talks to me about," Dent said. "Being able to take control of this team when I need to and being prepared for that. That's something that could very likely happen at the quarterback position."

In open scrimmages Dent has struggled to move the ball against Ole Miss' second-team defense. That can easily be blamed on the lack of healthy bodies on offense; he's often leading a group including former walk-ons at receiver, running back and tight end. 

Dent said he's felt himself improve this spring.

"It's Year 2 in this offense," Dent said. "Me and Matt know this offense. We're kind of learning the stuff that you really would learn Year 2 and 3. It's been a huge help."

The other beneficiary of Plumlee's absence has been early enrollee Luke Altmyer. He should be finishing his senior year at Starkville High School right now, but he arrived on campus in December and has been taking the third-team reps.

Altmyer has flashed the brilliance that made him the No. 13 pro-style quarterback in last year's 247Sports Composite. In one scrimmage, he threaded a beautiful rainbow of a wheel route over single coverage for a 30-yard touchdown.

He's also had moments that remind you he just turned 18 in October. Altmyer led the second-team offense for one play in the Rebels' second open scrimmage. He threw an interception returned for a touchdown.

"I think Luke's done a good job," Kiffin said. "He's suffered a little bit from our lack of numbers out there. Our second field hasn't been able to perform all the drills so there haven't been a lot of reps to go around. But he's done a good job."

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Ole Miss' lack of depth at the skill positions has been the story of the spring. Veteran wide receivers Braylon Sanders, Jonathan Mingo and Dontario Drummond have all missed time. Some players have stepped up, like junior college transfer Qua Davis and speed threat Dannis Jackson.

But the recurring complaint about lack of production on the perimeter without the top guys on the depth chart brings the Plumlee question back into focus. Are the second- and third-string receivers and tight ends not producing because Dent and Altmyer aren't ready to get them the ball? Or is the lack of quality depth among pass catchers proof that Ole Miss needs Plumlee there to fill the Elijah Moore-sized hole in Ole Miss' passing game?

Right now it feels foolish to assume Plumlee will be a full-time anything this fall. He's the most experienced backup quarterback option. It'd be surprising if Kiffin and Lebby ignored that experience in favor of untested options.

Still, it's telling that Plumlee stepped up at receiver in the Outback Bowl not after Moore opted out, but after Sanders hurt his ankle. Plumlee was a full-time quarterback last year until he was needed elsewhere.

Just as it would be surprising to think Plumlee won't take quarterback reps in the fall, it'd also be surprising to see Kiffin and Lebby ignore the lessons they learned in January about Plumlee's versatility.

Having an athlete like Plumlee burdens you with the problem of having to find ways to use him. If the end of last season taught us anything, that means using him as more than just a quarterback.

If the early returns this spring have taught us anything, that might also mean not abandoning his value as a backup quarterback either.

Contact Nick Suss at 601-408-2674 or nsuss@gannett.com. Follow @nicksuss on Twitter.