Jerrion Ealy streaks toward a touchdown against Southeastern Louisiana.

This was in October of 2007, back when Rich Rodriguez was the head football coach at West Virginia – before stints at Michigan and Arizona and 12 years before he hired on as the offensive coordinator at Ole Miss.

Rodriguez’s Mountaineers, ranked No. 9 in the nation, were playing a salty Mississippi State team that won eight games that season, defeated Alabama and Auburn, and then won the Liberty Bowl. My flight was late getting into West Virginia and I arrived at the press box just as the game was beginning.

Rick Cleveland

Here’s what I distinctly remember: West Virginia led 7-0 before I could get my computer out of my backpack. The Mountaineers led 14-0 before the computer fired up. They led 21-0 before State gained a first down. They led 28-0 after one quarter. Rodriguez tapped the brakes early and the gold-jerseyed Mountaineers coasted to a 38-13 victory. They would go on to slam No. 3 Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.

West Virginia’s speed, particularly that of quarterback Pat White and running back Steve Slaton, was absolutely stunning. In that first quarter, it seemed as if every play began with White either handing off to Slaton or faking the handoff, then running or throwing. Before State’s defense could figure whether White or Slaton had the ball, whoever did have the ball was off to the races.

Why bring up that game now? Because that particular game came to mind watching Ole Miss play Alabama this past Saturday at Tuscaloosa. Bama won with relative ease, 58-31, but Rodriguez’s offense piled up 476 yards of total offense. The speed of Ole Miss quarterback John Rhys Plumlee and running back Jerrion Ealy, both true freshmen, reminded me of White and Slaton and that afternoon 12 years ago.

John Rhys Plumlee, 10, scans the field at Alabama.

You ask me, Plumlee and Ealy give Ole Miss hope for the future. Yes, the Rebels must improve greatly on defense. They must improve speed at other positions. But speed and talent like that of Plumlee and Ealy are something you can build around. They bode well for the Ole Miss football future.

That hypothesis was mentioned in a phone interview with Rodriguez Tuesday afternoon.

“Yeah, well, I certainly hope so,” Rodriguez said. “Pat and Stevie were just so fast, and, what’s more, they played really fast. That’s one thing we are optimistic about here. Plumlee and Ealy are really fast and they are playing fast as freshmen. The thing is, as they continue to grow and mature, they will play even faster.

“We’ve got to get some more speed on the perimeter. We’ve got some now, and I think we have some more coming in the next recruiting class. We need to get some hold-your-breath speed guys outside.”

Speed at the quarterback position, particularly in these spread offenses, adds another dimension and gives defensive coordinators nightmares. I well remember Ellis Johnson, State’s defensive coordinator 12 years ago, talking about just that after that game in West Virginia. Johnson said he had coached against SEC teams that possessed West Virginia’s team speed, not not any team with White’s speed at quarterback.

“The difference is that they have a quarterback who can run like that,” Johnson said. “You can load up the box if it’s a running back, or you can double a wide receiver. But when you have a quarterback who can run like that it’s a whole ‘nother game. It changes everything.”

Ole Miss now has a quarterback like that. Plumlee has been clocked at just under 4.4 in the 40-yard dash. Clearly, Plumlee has the speed. What about the arm? Pat White could throw it, too.

Rich Rodriguez

“They are pretty similar, really,” Rodriguez said. “John Rhys threw it more in high school and is probably a more polished passer as a freshman but they have very similar arm strength. The other similarity is their leadership nature. They are both leaders. They both just love playing ball.”

When Rodriguez took the job at Ole Miss, someone showed him tape of Plumlee, who had backed away from a commitment to Georgia.

“I told them right away, that’s the kind of guy we need in our offense,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez was asked to compare Ealy with Slaton, who made All-America teams at West Virginia.

“Believe it or not, Slaton was probably a little bit faster,” Rodriguez said. “He was one of the fastest players in college football, if not the fastest. But Ealy has great speed, and he’s probably more polished as far as running routes and catching the ball.”

Yes, Rodriguez said, his Ole Miss offensive system is much the same as he ran at West Virginia with a few tweaks and adjustments. One thing hasn’t changed at all. Speed is paramount. Both Plumlee and Ealy have it in spades.

John Rhys Plumlee breaks into the open field against Alabama en route to 109 yards rushing on the day.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.