OXFORD, Miss. — Mississippi won 24 games and advanced to a bowl game each season during coach Hugh Freeze's first three years.
Quarterback Bo Wallace — whose 9,534 career passing yards rank second in school history — started every single game during that span.
Now he's gone.
The three-man race to see who replaces Wallace begins in earnest this week, when the Rebels open preseason camp. Transfer junior Chad Kelly — along with returning sophomores Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade — will all be considered for the starting job and Freeze has said the competition could last into the season's first few games.
Kelly started games at Red Lion High School as both a freshman and a sophomore, but was suspended from the team both years. His family moved to the Buffalo area after his sophomore season.
Freeze said Wednesday that Buchanan will take the first snaps with the starters after having a slight edge in the spring, but the quarterbacks will rotate frequently.
August workouts will be a delicate balance of preparation vs. preservation.
"We really need to see those guys get some live bullets," Freeze said. "But at the same time, you want to keep your team healthy for the games."
The quarterback spot is one of the few questions for a team that returns 16 starters from last season, including a handful that could be early NFL draft picks next spring.
Four juniors — defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, receiver Laquon Treadwell, safety Tony Connor and left tackle Laremy Tunsil — were all part of the Rebels' impressive 2013 recruiting class and have grown into stars.
Treadwell and Tunsil are both trying to return from broken legs suffered last season. Freeze said he expects both will be ready for the Sept. 5 opener against Tennessee Martin.
Treadwell said he's dropped about 20 pounds since last season — down from 230 to 210. He lost about 25 pounds following the broken leg and said he only needed to gain five back to regain his strength.
"I'm way stronger than before the injury so I don't want to put on that weight if I'm already stronger and faster," Treadwell said. "It's a health issue for me. I think it feels better."
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound Kelly is arguably the early favorite to win the quarterback job after arriving on campus in January.
Kelly has an impressive pedigree — his uncle is Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Kelly — but his college career has been full of poor decisions and controversy. He signed with Clemson out of high school, but was kicked off the team in the spring of 2014 following an argument with coaches during the spring game and eventually transferred to East Mississippi Community College.
He played well at EMCC last season, throwing for 3,906 yards, 47 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
That helped him earn a second chance with the Rebels, but he nearly blew it after being arrested following an incident outside a Buffalo, New York, nightclub in December. He eventually pleaded guilty to a non-criminal charge of disorderly conduct.
Since then, Freeze had said Kelly's off-the-field conduct would be monitored even more closely than his on-field performance.
"I'm so happy football is back," Kelly said. "I've got the jitters back and I'm ready to go."
Said Freeze: "He's just like a lot of us — he's made some mistakes in his past and he's ready to move beyond them."
Buchanan and Kincade are both redshirt sophomores and have both been on campus for more than two years, giving them plenty of time to digest the Rebels' playbook. Both played some last season in a backup role, though neither had enough time to make any sort of lasting impression.
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