OXFORD — After an offseason of speculation, it was once again a quarterback wearing No. 2 starting Ole Miss’ latest campaign.
Sophomore quarterback Jaxson Dart — a highly-coveted offseason addition from USC —made the first start of his Rebels career Saturday afternoon.
The Utah native was one of the top players in the transfer portal this offseason following his successful true freshman campaign at USC that saw him throw for 1,353 yards, nine touchdowns and five interceptions.
Taking the field in front of 60,533 eager fans at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium for No. 21 Ole Miss’ season opener versus Troy, Dart was solid in his debut, completing 18 of 27 passes for 154 yards, one touchdown and an interception in a 28-10 win over the Trojans. Dart also added 40 yards on the ground.
Sophomore Luke Altmyer, who was in a heated competition with Dart all offseason to succeed Matt Corral, entered the game in the fourth quarter. He went 1 for 2 for 13 yards.
“You want to do your best. So, there’s definitely times where you make a mistake here and there. You really learn that you just have to get over it, because you never ever want something where one play turns into two bad plays, or two bad plays turns into three bad plays. You want to be able to rebound.” Dart said. “ … That’s a good learning lesson as a quarterback in general. There’s a lot of things that go on each and every play. You have to be able to rebound and forget about the past, whether it was good or bad, and make adjustments.”
Head coach Lane Kiffin told reporters that Altmyer will start next weekend against Central Arkansas.
“That was the plan that they knew … Just said, ‘Hey, this thing is so even, it’s really not fair for us to pick just one, because it’s so even,” Kiffin said. “ … We said we were going to go first with one today, and then the other one will go first next Saturday. I just didn’t want to do the one game, one game thing because I wanted both of them to play in both and both have a chance to start, they would have a chance to come off the bench.”
The Rebels (1-0) bolstered their entire roster through the transfer portal during the winter and spring, and those transfers made their presences felt at every level Saturday. Former TCU junior running back Zach Evans ran angry just like he said he would, as the junior ran for 130 yards, with 108 of those coming in the first half.
Fellow transfer running back Ulysses Bentley IV — a junior from SMU — scored the first touchdown of the Rebels’ season, staying on his feet while rolling off would-be Troy tacklers for a two-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. True freshman Quinshon Judkins scored his first career touchdown midway through the second quarter and finished with 87 yards.
And it was transfers that dominated defensively as well, as former TCU junior linebacker Khari Coleman made play after play in the backfield with five tackles —including two sacks — for loss helped Ole Miss hold Troy (0-1) to just 111 first-half yards. The Rebels held Troy to 7 of 17 on third-down conversions.
Three Ole Miss players have had five or more tackles for loss in a game since 1999, including Coleman.
Ole Miss scored the first 21 points of the game and didn’t look back, leaning on a running attack filled with new, talented faces. Evans looked every bit the part of the five-star recruit he was in the 2020 class, averaging 6.5 yards per carry. Dart missed a few early deep balls but made an impact on the ground, highlighted by a rush on third-and-10 in the second quarter that saw him bounce off a Trojan and continue down the sideline for 36 yards.
The Rebels ran for 201 yards in the first half and 266 overall.
“We have a loaded backfield. … So, I mean, obviously if the load comes my way, I will take it. There’s no doubt about that,” Evans said. “But, obviously, I’d love to share it with everyone back there … We’re all putting in hard work.”
Another transfer — former Central Michigan linebacker Troy Brown — played a big role for the Ole Miss defense as well, racking up 11 total tackles.
Dart’s first touchdown pass as a Rebel came in the third quarter, hitting former Mississippi State receiver Malik Heath for a 12-yard score. He threw his interception in the end zone midway through the third quarter.
Kiffin said Dart played well for the most part until the interception and lauded him for taking check down throws against soft coverage. Kiffin also said that the Rebels would have run the ball more under most circumstances up 28-3 — running the ball seemingly at will — but wanted to work on the offense’s passing components.
“That is exactly what (Dart) knows has been his issue, is not speeding things up and understanding the timing of our passing game and not getting away with those throws,” Kiffin said. “Those throws don’t work. Certainly don’t work in this conference. … But he was doing a really good job until then.”
Ole Miss’ defense was stingy for the majority of the afternoon and gave up its lone touchdown midway through the fourth on a short scoring pass from Gunnar Watson.
The Rebels host Central Arkansas next Saturday. Kickoff is set for 6 p.m.