ATLANTA — Player and coach crossed paths.
Maybe they embraced because of the bright lights from dozens of cameras. Or maybe because they’re close, connected in a way few really understand.
Physically, Jordan Ta’amu and his head coach, Matt Luke, were walking in different directions, crossing a bustling hallway from one interview room to the other amid Day 2 of Southeastern Conference media days. Figuratively, they are walking parallel paths, side by side, as two of the more unlikely attendees at this league’s kickoff event. A year ago, Hugh Freeze arrived at media days as Ole Miss’s leader and one of the most established coaches in the conference, and the hotly recruited Shea Patterson was poised to be the Rebels’ long-term answer at QB.
As part of a maddening year of change, they are both gone, and their replacements immediately bonded over their circumstances. In an exit meeting in December, Luke looked across the desk at his quarterback, “This is crazy,” he said. “We’re on the same path.”
Center Sean Rawlings calls all of it “change for the good,” two people who overtook their respective groups, the team and the offense, after their predecessors resigned, in Freeze’s case, and transferred, in Patterson’s case. Luke changed the culture last August in his first month as interim coach, Rawlings says, then two months later, Ta’amu quickly took command of the offense, leading the unit to scoring drives on his first seven possessions last fall after an injury to Patterson. He played so well in his five starts—66.5 completion percentage, 1,682 yards, 11 touchdowns and four interceptions—that Luke admits a starting battle would have “absolutely” waged his offseason had Patterson stuck around. “But he didn’t,” the coach bluntly says. “It’s Jordan’s team.”
And now, here they are, coach and quarterback, bumping into one another in the hallways of the Omni Hotel in downtown Atlanta, while representing the Rebels at one of college football’s biggest preseason spectacles. “Super crazy,” Ta’amu smiles.
An hour later, the 6-foot-2, 212-pounder happily obliged two dozen autograph-seeking Ole Miss fans in the media days’ hub at the College Football Hall of Fame. Each of them were clutching blue-and-red memorabilia awaiting the signature of a Hawaii native they barely knew just a year ago, a junior college transfer who only stumbled onto Ole Miss because of a fellow Hawaiian on the Rebels support staff.
The new notoriety hasn’t changed Ta’amu, his peers and coach say. Well, Luke adds, maybe a little. “I saw him in sunglasses the other day. He’s feeling it a little bit,” the coach chuckles. Ta’amu is not normally a sunglass-wearer, he admits, but he’s relishing, ever so slightly, the fame that goes with being a starting quarterback in the SEC. Rawlings walked into this event’s main room Tuesday, spotted Ta’amu encircled by more than 30 reporters and yelled toward him, “My guy!” before using his phone to film a quick video of Ole Miss’s No. 1 QB.
This seemed implausible three years ago just as it did 10 months ago, for a scrawny, 170-pound kid who emerged from high school “on the island,” he calls it, with zero Division I scholarship offers and one—one—offer at a junior college. Still, he’s not a household name like the SEC’s other Hawaiian quarterback, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa. For instance, one of the moderators at media days badly mispronounced Ta’amu’s name in introducing him to a room full of reporters, something he’s used to by now (it’s tuh-AH-moo, by the way).
Ta’amu has developed a nickname with some teammates. “Little Mariota,” says defensive end Josiah Coatney, a nod to the quarterback’s childhood hero, fellow Hawaiian and current Tennessee Titan Marcus Mariota. Ta’amu is from Pearl City on Oahu, the most populated Hawaiian island that also includes Mariota’s hometown, Honolulu. Tagovailoa is from the coastal town of Ewa Beach, about 30 minutes from Pearl City.
The friendship between Ta’amu and Tagovailoa’s parents resulted in them training together in high school at Ewa Beach park, a palm-tree lined scene on the coast. Tagovailoa is set for a camp battle with Jalen Hurts that many believe he’ll win, and so the two Hawaiians could meet on the field Sept. 15 in Oxford, Miss. “I’m excited about Hawaii vs. Hawaii,” Ta’amu says.
Defeating Alabama is the tallest of tasks, especially for a team that’s fought serious depth issues at linebacker the last two years, but Luke says continuity—the Rebels are keeping the same their offensive and defensive schemes—will be the key for this squad. They’ve got one of the best position groups in the league, too, with A.J. Brown, DaMarkus Lodge and D.K. Metcalf. They’re known as “NWO,” Ta’amu says, “Nasty Wideouts.”
There are no 50-50 deep passes with this group. “They’re 90-10 balls,” the quarterback says. Ole Miss highlights from 2017 played on a giant display in the main room as Rebels players chatted with reporters. Members of NWO were prominent, leaping to make one-handed catches, hauling in touchdown passes over defenders’ heads and snatching even off-the-mark throws.
Despite a second year of a postseason ban, maybe this team can make some offensive noise, potentially ruining seasons for its SEC rivals. A hearing on the school’s latest appeal of the postseason ban and some recruiting sanctions is scheduled for later this month, Luke says, but the hope for lifting the bowl ban is faint.
So what’s the goal if not a bowl? It’s just like last year, Luke says: play for your teammates, for your pride and prove the doubters wrong, as they did with last year’s late-season run. Ole Miss upset Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl, a third win in their final four games. “Everybody last year said, ‘They’re going to quit,’” Luke says. “We never did.”
Luke entered games late last season thinking he’d take bigger risks with a team banned from the postseason. Maybe try a fake field goal here or attempt a fourth down there. In the heat of the moment, it never happened. “I asked myself, ‘If you do this, you can put yourself behind the 8-ball.’”
With a more seasoned Ta’amu, maybe more risks are coming this year. The quarterback has settled into Oxford, a cultural change not only from his homeland but a big leap from his last spot. New Mexico Military, his lone junior college offer, is a strict military boarding school where daily room inspections included white-gloved officers checking Ta’amu’s furniture for dust and making sure his shaved head was trimmed enough.
Surrounded by water as a child, Ta’amu had never seen a lake until he arrived in New Mexico, and he’d never eaten fried catfish until his first trip to north Mississippi. He now drinks sweet tea, he says, with “every meal,” and his favorite mainland food is crawfish. Meanwhile, his coach was raised on these things on the coast of Mississippi, a southern boy who played for Ole Miss.
They have their differences, sure, but this coach and his quarterback, their paths are the same. “It’s been a shared,” Luke smiles, “experience.”