FAYETTEVILLE -- Cole Kelley and Jordan Ta'amu went head to head as young, fill-in starting quarterbacks last year when the University of Arkansas beat Ole Miss 38-37 in Oxford, Miss.
That marked Ta'amu's first game as the starter for the injured Shea Patterson and Kelley's first win in his third start for the injured Austin Allen after losses to Alabama and Auburn.
On Saturday, Ta'amu, now a senior, will lead Ole Miss' No. 7-rated offense into War Memorial Stadium for a 6:30 p.m. game, while Kelley will be waiting in the wings this time, ready to operate in the back-up role for the Razorbacks (1-5, 0-3 SEC) as both teams seek their first SEC victory.
Ta'amu has already passed for 1,911 yards and 13 touchdowns through six games for the Rebels (4-2, 0-2). He is the second consecutive high-powered Hawaiian quarterback Arkansas will face, following Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa's dissection of the Hogs last week.
"They do a lot of things that put defenses in some conflict situations," Arkansas Coach Chad Morris said. "Jordan has done a really good job of coming in last year as a quarterback and taking on his role."
Kelley started the Hogs' first two home games, but the sophomore struggled during the infancy of the Morris offense at Arkansas. After throwing four interceptions in a 44-17 loss to North Texas, Kelley was replaced by junior Ty Storey, who is now rapidly improving as the offense shows signs of solidifying.
The 6-7 Kelley is still part of the evolving plan and is finding success in Arkansas' short yardage and goal-line packages with touchdowns on three of his last four snaps.
"It's hard to stop 6-7, 270 [pounds] on fourth and 1 on the goal line," Arkansas offensive coordinator Joe Craddock said.
"Cole's so big," Ole Miss Coach Matt Luke said. "I just remember in our game last year, it seemed like he could fall forward and gain 5 or 6 yards when it didn't look like he was getting much. Just his size and being able to have a guy like that in short yardage could be a weapon."
Kelley has not retreated into a shell since Morris declared Storey as his permanent starting quarterback on the day after the North Texas loss.
"From Day One, especially in our quarterback room, I think the vibe around the team is whatever we've got to do to win," Kelley said. "Speaking for myself, whatever I have to do win, whatever I have to do to help the team win is what I'm about.
"I think the package where I go in on short yardage and goal line is very successful. So I think we're just going to build off that. I love doing it. It's fun really. I look at it kind of like an art, really, just to kind of get defenses off balance and all that kind of stuff. It's pretty fun."
Arkansas guard Johnny Gibson noted Kelley's team-first approach.
"Cole's handled it great," Gibson said. "He's a competitor. He's not some of these other guys who you see just leave the program because something's not going right. You know he understands that we still need him. He's a big part of this offense in his area, which is short yardage."
Kelley, who found a niche behind Allen in the "Steamboat" package last year, converted a fourth-and-2 play in the third quarter at Auburn in his first game as the defined backup. Later in the game, he was stopped short on a third-and-1 call from the Arkansas 18.
Since then, it's been all arrows up for Kelley and the specialty package.
"That package has been working for us and we love it," Gibson said.
Morris described Kelley as a "fierce competitor" who wants to play.
"But he's accepted his role," Morris said. "He's become a great team player. He's very encouraging when you see him on the sideline. He's encouraging them and he understands what his role is and he's excited about it."
Kelley salvaged a potential disaster when he used all of his 6-7 frame to bring in a high Shotgun snap and score a 1-yard touchdown against Texas A&M two weeks ago.
"He's a baller," Gibson said. "He's one of those guys that is very into the game and he understands what his job is. He saw [the high snap] and he made a great reaction to it. Then he was also strong enough to get in there and run through a safety, the unblocked guy on that play."
All of the Kelley plays worked against Alabama. In the second quarter on first and goal from the 6, he ran for 3 yards. On the next snap, he feigned a run, then hit tight end C.J. O'Grady, who improvised a short drag route for a touchdown.
"C.J. was very smart on that play because he got himself open," Kelley said. "Alabama covered it pretty well, but C.J. got himself open. He's a pretty smart player and he's got great hands. I just put it in a spot for him to make a play."
Craddock said Kelley, whose re-entry in the second half of the North Texas game drew boos from Razorbacks fans, has enjoyed being in the quarterback room.
"We have a good time in there," Craddock said. "I think he's embraced his role. He knows that Ty is playing well and he's got Ty's back. He's encouraged him.
"He really embraces that role. He loves that kind of stuff. He's always coming to me asking what's his package for this week, and obviously we've had one every week since the North Texas game."
Kelley said he's been supportive of Storey because he knows how important that role is.
"What I do is I put myself in his shoes because I've been in his shoes before," Kelley said. "Especially if the quarterback is struggling or the team is struggling or the offense is struggling, everybody points fingers at the quarterback. So I try to be there for Ty because I know how much pressure and responsibility comes with being a quarterback.
"And I know how much the support of your teammates really does help, man. It's big. So I try to be there for him, and he's there for me. We've got a great relationship. Our whole quarterback room is really tight. It's actually really special to be honest with you, because people try to pit people against each other, but we're really close."
Sports on 10/12/2018
Print Headline: Fill-ins no more