No. 22 Ole Miss opens with Mercer; QB Jaxson Dart expected to start

Lane Kiffin declined to announce starting quarterback as No. 22 Ole Miss prepared to open its season Saturday against FCS foe Mercer at home in Oxford, Miss.

But, according to a report Saturday morning from ESPN, it will be returning starter Jaxson Dart.

The Rebels started last season 7-0 and rose to No. 7 in the country on the strength of an offense led by Dart and running back Quinshon Judkins. But they stumbled to an 8-5 finish, including a 42-25 loss to Texas Tech in the Texas Bowl.

Judkins, who had 1,699 yards from scrimmage and 17 total touchdowns as a freshman, is now a first-team preseason All-American. The defense returns 12 players with starting experience. The missing piece had been a decision at quarterback.

Dart had been competing with transfer Spencer Sanders, a four-year starter at Oklahoma State.

“We’ve not made that final decision,” Kiffin said Monday and didn’t update his stance throughout the week. “We’re very excited about all the guys. As far as the starter, that’s between two people. Both guys played extremely well and made very explosive plays (in a mock game) on Saturday. Managed the offense well. We feel very confident with either of them.”

Dart threw for 2,974 yards, 20 touchdowns and 11 interceptions last year. Sanders has nearly 10,000 career passing yards, 67 touchdowns and two bowl game MVPs to his credit.

Judkins said Kiffin had not tipped his QB1 choice, not even in the locker room.

“That’s not something he would say in a public setting, around the whole team, in a team meeting or anything like that,” Judkins said. “That’s more inside of him, offensive coordinators and quarterback coaches. There’s nothing that’s been said to us.”

Mercer (1-0) was ranked No. 20 in the STATS Perform FCS preseason poll after the Southern Conference member went 7-4 a year ago.

The Bears had a strong defensive showing last Saturday when they beat North Alabama 17-7 in the FCS Kickoff Classic in Montgomery, Ala. Mercer allowed just 12 first downs and 248 total yards.

Micah Bell led the charge on offense with 20 carries for 73 yards and a touchdown. Carter Peevy was 12-of-17 passing and completed a 14-yard touchdown to Ty James.

Mercer’s record against FBS competition in recent years includes lopsided losses at Auburn in 2022, at Alabama in 2021 and at Army in 2020.

“They played well Saturday and played very well last year,” Kiffin said of the Bears. “They play extremely hard, even if you go back to last year and years ago when they were at Alabama, how well they played on defense, early, but especially on defense and the problems they gave them … we’re going to have our hands full and prepare really well.”

Mercer coach Drew Cronic is reminding his players that fundamentals are key.

“You’ll really get exposed if you’re not fundamentally sound, doing exactly what you’re coached to do when you start playing SEC-level talent,” Cronic said. “When we go back and look at the last two years when we played Auburn and we played Alabama, when we do what we’re supposed to do we give ourselves a chance to execute plays.

“We’ll go over there and throw everything we got at ’em. You never know what’ll happen.”

–Field Level Media