Anyone following the ongoing saga at Ole Miss will spend hours, maybe days, coming to terms with the circumstances under which Hugh Freeze became unemployed.
There was an NCAA case alleging 21 total and 15 Level I allegations, the most severe type, that buffeted the program he oversaw a few years after his brazen Twitter request to email the school’s compliance department with any facts about violations. There was a spirited defense from Ole Miss on Freeze’s behalf despite the sub-.500 Southeastern Conference record and 5–7 finish the Rebels recorded in 2016. And then, the coup de grace: A coach who had cultivated an image as a paragon of God-fearing probity was forced to resign amid the revelation that he’d made a call to a number linked to a female escort service using a university-issued phone.
Once you get past how the Rebels got here, without a permanent head coach and bracing for a hammer blow from the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions (COI), you can’t help but wonder whether things could possibly get worse. There is one obvious way: the most important player on their roster, quarterback Shea Patterson, could bolt for another program. SEC diehards know him well, and every defensive coordinator set to face the Rebels this season definitely knows what he’s capable of, but most college football fans may not be all that familiar with the sophomore quarterback who spent this off-season drawing comparisons to Johnny Manziel.
Patterson arrived at Ole Miss as the No. 4 overall prospect in the class of 2016, according to the 247Sports Composite, after a lengthy recruitment that included a previous verbal commitment to Arizona and a pair of high school transfers, from Hidalgo High School in Texas to Calvary Baptist Academy in Louisiana to IMG Academy in Florida. He announced his verbal pledge to Ole Miss in February ’15, the same month his older brother, Sean Jr., reportedly resigned from an offensive quality control position at LSU and began working at Ole Miss. He remains on the Rebels’ staff as the program’s associate director of recruiting operations.
After enrolling early, Patterson participated in spring practice last year but spent most of the 2016 season sitting behind Chad Kelly. He was thrust into action after Kelly went down with a season-ending knee injury during a November win over Georgia Southern—Freeze immediately came under fire for burning Patterson’s redshirt two-thirds of the way into a middling season. Patterson looked like the real deal in a win over then No. 8 Texas A&M the next week, when he threw for 338 yards, ran for 64 and tossed two touchdowns, including a daring scramble-and-heave in the fourth quarter to Damore’ea Stringfellow that could have been confused for one of Manziel’s signature backyard ad-libs.
Ole Miss lost its final two games of the season by a combined 56 points, including a 55–20 whipping in the Egg Bowl at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, but Patterson showed well enough in a limited sample size to position himself as a prime breakout candidate heading into 2017. He seemed at the forefront of a quarterback resurgence in the SEC, a prodigious talent with an enticing dual-threat skill set and as strong a claim to first-team all-conference recognition as counterparts Jalen Hurts (Alabama), Nick Fitzgerald (Mississippi State), Jacob Eason (Georgia) and Jake Bentley (South Carolina).
Patterson is something like a perfect building block for the modern college football offense, but his talent was not the only reason to bet on him having a huge sophomore campaign. Ole Miss hired Phil Longo, an Air Raid acolyte whose Sam Houston State units lit up Football Championship Subdivision defenses over the past three seasons, to be its new offensive coordinator and returns a loaded cast of wide receivers headlined by sophomores Van Jefferson and A.J. Brown and redshirt freshman D.K. Metcalf. The Rebels have a mobile triggerman piloting a high-octane system with dangerous pass catchers spreading the field around him. Look out.
That can’t happen, though, if Patterson isn’t around. In February, after Ole Miss announced it had self-imposed a postseason ban for 2017 following its receipt of an amended Notice of Allegations from the NCAA, he sent out a tweet indicating he was committed to the Rebels. “20 is ready to go..I love my school, coaches, teammates and our fans,” Patterson wrote. “And I can’t wait for the 2017 season together! Let’s go! #HottyToddy” The possibility of a change of scenery also came up at a media availability this week. When asked Monday whether there was “any thought in your mind of transferring,” Patterson dodged the issue.
“Like I said, it’s just all so much right now,” Patterson said. “I love this university, love my teammates and with camp being August 2, all I want to do is go out there and play with the brothers that I love, with the game I love, and can’t wait to start this new offense with Coach Longo. We’re all so excited about it.” Interim head coach Matt Luke, who was promoted from offensive line coach to replace Freeze, also addressed Patterson at the availability. “He was one of the first ones to come up to me. He said, ‘Coach, let’s go win some football games,’” Luke said. “And I think he is excited about getting out there and playing—to put all the distractions behind him and just going and playing football.”
While both Patterson and Luke kept the focus on the upcoming season, Patterson’s father, Sean Sr., was more direct in addressing the transfer speculation about his son when speaking with The Clarion-Ledger last Friday, the day after chancellor Jeffrey S. Vitter and athletic director Ross Bjork held a press conference to announce Freeze’s resignation. “He still loves the university and he loves the fans. … Unless there’s some sort of mass exodus or some crazy thing, he’s a Rebel,” Sean Sr. told the paper. “That’s hopefully what his legacy is … that he and his teammates helped keep things rolling when things were really tight.”
Those comments suggest Patterson isn’t going anywhere, at least right now, but Ole Miss’s future could look a lot bleaker after a hearing before the COI, which could take place at some point over the next couple of months. The Rebels have already docked 11 scholarships over a four-year period and declared themselves ineligible for the postseason in 2017, but the committee could add to those penalties, including by allowing players to play right away after transferring, a measure the NCAA included in its punishment of Penn State over the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. That provision could trigger just the sort of exodus mentioned by Sean Sr. (Nine players wound up departing the Nittany Lions.)
It’s not clear whether a personnel outflow of that scale is on the table for Ole Miss, and as yet, Patterson has not publicly let on that he’s considering leaving town. The Rebels looked set to go to the mat for Freeze, but he’s out of the picture now, and the program’s fate is at the mercy of a group of college athletics officials whose handling of high-profile enforcement cases has fueled a seemingly unending stream of criticism over the last decade. It goes without saying that a number of programs would leap at the opportunity to add Patterson. If he does decide to move on, it would compound Ole Miss’s off-field turmoil with on-field pain.