Jaxson Dart didn’t back down.
Mississippi’s starting quarterback suddenly faced a challenge for the job during the spring after coach Lane Kiffin brought in two transfers, including four-year Oklahoma State starter Spencer Sanders.
Dart, who leads the 15th-ranked Rebels against No. 13 Alabama Saturday in Tuscaloosa, held onto the job and has perhaps been better than ever so far this season.
“I think the challenges and adversity make us all better,” Kiffin said this week. “Even though I’m sure he didn’t like it at the time, it was good for him. He’s played extremely well.”
Dart was pretty good last season after transferring from USC, which is why the addition of Sanders and LSU transfer Walker Howard was notable even in the era of transfer portal musical chairs.
Dart has started the first three games, though all three quarterbacks played in the opener against Merce r. Dart said after that game he had expected since last season to be the starter and “I felt like I earned it.”
A couple of days later, Kiffin made it official. Dart was his starter. Still.
He leads Ole Miss into its biggest test of the season having dispatched Mercer and Georgia Tech easily and helped the Rebels to a road win over then-No. 22 Tulane.
Dart ranks fifth in the FBS in total offense, averaging 355 yards per game, sixth in passing efficiency (202.45) and second in yards per completion (18.93).
All those numbers are significantly ahead of last year’s, though better defenses no doubt await -- including Alabama’s.
“We thought he was a really good player last year, so I think he’s playing extremely well this year,” Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said. “I can’t really say as a great comparison, but he’s throwing the ball well, he’s always a threat as a runner. They have quarterback runs in their offense, which he does a great job of reading them.
“And this guy's tough and a great competitor. It’s going to be really challenging for us to play him run and pass.”
Dart passed for 251 yards and a touchdown against Georgia Tech and ran for 136 yards and two scores. He has had to step up his game with some of the Rebels’ best playmakers sidelined or limited by injury, including tailback Quinshon Judkins and wide receiver Tre Harris.
The Rebels, Kiffin said, have had “to put the offense on his back there a little bit the last few weeks.” Dart, who was intercepted 11 times last season, feels like he has done a better job this season of not forcing the issue too much in going for big plays when they aren’t available.
One thing he hasn’t done well is slide to avoid risk of injury for the Rebels’ most important player.
“I definitely need to start doing that,” Dart said after the Georgia Tech game. “My mom (Kara) tells me every single day — on the (pre-game) walk she actually told me, She’s like, ‘Now, you remember to slide.’ I guess I just forgot. But I’ll remember it.”
The 6-foot-2, 220-pounder hasn’t shied from contact. The son of former Utah safety Brandon Dart lowered his shoulder into Georgia Tech defensive back Ahmari Harvey for the first touchdown against the Yellow Jackets.
“I love that part of the sport, love that part of football,” Dart said after the game. “My Dad always raised me to be a football player before a quarterback. So I’ve just always loved the physicality of it.”
That’s not always what you want to hear from your quarterback, no matter who his backups are.
“His parents have very tough minds,” Kiffin said. “His mom runs marathons. His dad was a safety. He had that in him, which is good.
“You’ve just got to be smart when you use that. But he’s got a very competitive, tough side to him for sure.”