OXFORD — Don't forget about Luke Altmyer.
Jaxson Dart is the shiny new toy in the Ole Miss quarterback competition. Lane Kiffin and the Ole Miss coaching staff hand-picked Dart out of the transfer portal from Southern Cal. Dart's the one who had five stars next to his name as a recruit. He's the one who helped earn Kiffin the "Portal King" nickname. And, shoot, his name is Jaxson Dart. Hollywood screenwriters wouldn't dare name a quarterback that. It's too obvious.
But don't forget about Luke Altmyer. Don't ignore the sophomore from Starkville who came to Ole Miss as the Rebels' highest-rated in-state quarterback recruit this century and spent the last year apprenticing under Matt Corral. Don't mistake quiet composure for resignation to stay the backup.
"I believe in myself," Altmyer said. "I really do. I understand the nature of the business. But I go to work every day with the belief that I can lead this team."
The sponge becomes the engine
Altmyer wasn't surprised Ole Miss signed Dart. He's not naïve. Far from it, actually. His intelligence and cerebral approach to football is one of his finest assets.
Chris Jones, Altmyer's coach at Starkville, remembers nights when the quarterback would send him film and ideas about plays at 1 a.m. Jones knew Altmyer's ideas would work. That's the kind of trust you have in a player who was thrust into the role Altmyer had as a freshman, filling in as an injury replacement in the 6A state championship game.
It's actually an uncanny parallel to Altmyer's situation at Ole Miss in the Sugar Bowl. It was the biggest game of the year and he, a quiet freshman, was the player tasked with leading a huddle.
Starkville lost that championship game and Ole Miss lost the Sugar Bowl. Altmyer was put in two impossible situations and couldn't overcome the impossible either time. But in both situations, he came out the other side more prepared to be the guy for his team. Jones observed that growth once and he's seeing it again.
"Last year I thought he walked around and acted like a freshman," Jones told the Clarion Ledger. "Just shy a little bit. Now he's one of the guys. That's what you usually get Year 1 to Year 2 is that confidence and those intangibles people don't talk about. When the guys around you will fight for you or rally for you or make that extra catch for you or dive for you or make that block. That's the stuff that makes you the guy on that level."
Altmyer's father Chad has seen his son grow too. Physically, sure. Altmyer has packed on some muscle since arriving last spring as a should-be high school senior.
But Altmyer has also adjusted his mentality. He knew his role last year, waiting behind Corral as the California kid led the Rebels to 10 wins and stuck around in the Heisman Trophy race until injuries to him and his receivers derailed his chances.
This year, Altmyer is taking a different approach.
"I think he was more of a sponge his first year," Chad Altmyer said. "Now he's trying to be the engine that's running the train. I think it's just two different Lukes there. One was the Luke who was there to learn and support Matt and I thought he did a fantastic job of that coming in against Auburn and the Sugar Bowl and Tennessee. He got thrown into some fires. But when the time comes, even his coaches have said 'This is a Luke we didn't know existed.'"
The Altmyer who has always existed
Altmyer's parents knew he was a special player when he was 7 years old. Altmyer set the city record for touchdown passes in a season playing in the 7- and 8-year-old league.
From there, Altmyer's talent keep ascending. He picked the game up on his own. His dad played baseball and basketball at Mississippi College, but football found Altmyer. Mike Norvell, then the coach at Memphis, offered Altmyer a scholarship when he was a high school freshman. At that point, Altmyer didn't have a personal quarterbacks coach or any of the other top-tier training most prospects receive.
It wasn't until his sophomore year when former Mississippi State coach Joe Moorhead linked Chad Altmyer with David Morris at QB Country, a nationally recognized training operation in Mobile, Alabama. Altmyer was high school friends with Moorhead's son and Moorhead advised the Altmyers that Morris' tutelage could help skyrocket their son's potential.
"My wife took Luke down to David Morris and he worked out that day and I talked to David that night and he said 'Man, you've got something here' and I said 'Really? He's good?'" Chad Altmyer admits. "It kind of took me by surprise."
Chad Altmyer said the emotion of observing his son's achievements usually comes in three waves. First, there's fear. Football is a scary sport for a parent. Second, there's surprise: "Luke is really doing it. He's good." Then the third is the feeling of "duh."
"There's the emotion of 'Why am I surprised? He's been doing this his whole life,'" Chad Altmyer said.
Case in point: Altmyer was invited to participated in the Elite 11 quarterback camp in 2020. The camp was scaled back because of COVID-19 precautions, but it was still an opportunity for the nation's top quarterback recruits to get together and sling the ball.
Chad Altmyer remembers showing up to a tournament with his wife and son and meeting high-profile recruits like Caleb Williams (now at USC) and JJ McCarthy (Michigan). He was amazed by how high school quarterbacks had entourages of trainers and personal coaches there by their side.
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"And we were like 'It's just us. Good luck Luke!'" Chad Altmyer said. "After that first day he was really, really good and competed at a high level. Luke's never held back. So it was really neat to see him compete with those guys."
A year after that, the quarterback who was just the second Mississippian to be an Elite 11 and Under Armour All-American quarterback became the first Mississippi native to throw a Sugar Bowl touchdown since Auburn's Jason Campbell 17 years prior.
About that Sugar Bowl
Corral injured his ankle with two minutes left in the first quarter of the Sugar Bowl. After a missed Rebels field goal and a Baylor four-and-out, Altmyer trotted onto the field early in the second quarter.
He led 10 drives, going 15-for-28 passing for 174 yards and a touchdown. He also threw two interceptions, one returned for a Baylor touchdown, and was sacked seven times.
Kiffin called Ole Miss' overall offensive performance in the Sugar Bowl one of the worst he's ever coached. Jones graded Altmyer's performance as average. Chad Altmyer can't help but wonder how things would've been different if one or two tipped passes or missed blocks had gone the other way.
Luke Altmyer is his own harshest critic. He said early in spring practices that he still thinks about or watches film from the Sugar Bowl almost every day. He replays certain situations, correcting the ghosts that haunt him.
But it was one game. Against a team with a top-five defense that finished fifth in the FBS in sacks. And he was a freshman, who up to that point had thrown nine college passes for a total of 18 yards.
What matters more is what Altmyer does next.
Dart committed to Ole Miss on Jan. 29, four weeks after Altmyer's Sugar Bowl showing.
A month into Ole Miss' spring practices, it doesn't seem as if either quarterback has an edge. Dart has made more flashy plays, but he's also made a lot more mistakes. Altmyer doesn't have the downfield-throwing gumption Dart does, but his consistency and comfort within the scheme have translated to smooth possessions and big gains in scrimmages.
The unfortunate reality is most college football teams only carry one alpha in the quarterback room. Players know this. Coaches know this too.
Jones told the Clarion Ledger he's had "dozens of coaches" reach out to him about whether Altmyer is going to enter the transfer portal. Jones checked with Altmyer and then told the coaches what his former pupil told him.
"His thing was 'I'm going to stay and compete,'" Jones said. "Which didn't surprise me because that's just who he is. His thing is the cream will rise to the top. It doesn't shock me. I think he's an SEC quarterback. I think he'll get the job done."
To their credit, Altmyer and Dart have become fast friends. For two 19-year-olds, they're both handling this situation well. Altmyer was one of the first people to reach out to Dart when he got to Mississippi.
He doesn't view the competition as an outsider coming to take his job. It's just ... competition. This is a chance to get better and prove what he can do. Not just to the people who already know. But also to the people he represents.
"He's been raised that way, to represent your family and your name and your state the absolute best you can," Chad Altmyer said. "I think he relishes in the fact that he can do it. He brings a great face to the university and Mississippi as well. I think he takes pride in it. I know he does. And I know he wants to do it in everything, not just in football."
Contact Nick Suss at 601-408-2674 or email@example.com. Follow @nicksuss on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: Why Luke Altmyer has the gumption to win Ole Miss football QB battle