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Kiffin has a secret weapon and his name is Jaxson Dart

  • Ole Miss Head Coach Lane Kiffin said his returning QB has influenced both sides of the ball.

Lane Kiffin didn’t have to wait until the end of the game to get in touch with his feelings.

He knew where he stood after Kendall Milton’s 33-yard run early in the third quarter. Maybe after Milton’s 7-yard run late in the second quarter.

It was hard keeping up with Georgia’s touchdowns in the Bulldogs’ 52-17 win over Ole Miss last November.

In a historic 11-win season for Ole Miss, the two losses were telling – by two touchdowns on the road against an Alabama team still trying to find itself and by too many to count later at Georgia.

Kiffin took a few knocks for his postgame comments in Athens. Some thought he was throwing his players under the bus.

“It wasn’t a knock on our players as much as it was a knock on myself as a coach,” he explained at his spring football presser last week. “We’ve got to recruit better because that didn’t look like us in that game – especially in our front seven on defense and our offensive line.”

He told local media they’ll see a noticeable difference as the Rebels continue in spring drills.

“I attribute that to us recruiting really well in the (transfer) portal and really that feeling after the Georgia game – actually the feeling during the game.”

Focus on player safety has led to a decrease in the physicality of football through the years.

But how a player feels still matters.

In fact, in the NIL and Transfer Portal Era feelings – the emotional ones — matter more than ever before.

Now coaches have to consider not only playing time but also NIL cash to read the state of mind of their top athletes.

Managing athletes differently

Sometimes you can cater to those athletes. Sometimes, like in the case of star running back Quinshon Judkins, twice a thousand-yard rusher who reached the end zone enough to purchase a timeshare, you let him go.

Coaches have to manage the feelings of new players going and old players staying, and they have to do it every year.

It’s not like the NFL where a contract is signed, and a team can feel like it’s got something for a couple of years.

Kiffin has shown himself more proficient than most in managing the transfer portal. The big haul of transfers this season will help offset the absence of Judkins. The odds-on starter at running back, Ulysses Bentley, is also a transfer, though from a previous class. If he can stay healthy Ole Miss fans won’t think as much about Judkins.

Managing feelings isn’t only an off-season event.

Arkansas, the Rebels’ SEC rival, is a two-sport example of what can happen when players are distracted.

Razorbacks wide receiver Isaiah Sategna told “Hit That Line” in January that players were pulling in different directions in their 4-8, 1-7 SEC season.

“We lost a lot of games by three or seven points,” Sategna said. “The games were closer than a lot of people think. We had one of the hardest schedules in the country. We all came to Arkansas to play the best. Last year wasn’t a reflection of Arkansas football. We are changing it. We’re a lot closer as a team. We got rid of some of the negatives, kind of the cancers in the locker room. And I feel like this year will be a lot better.”

The Hogs had similar issues this basketball season.

The Razorbacks’ team site in the Sports Illustrated network had this to say in it’s end-of-season assessment:

Arkansas had the talent to compete for a national championship this year. Unfortunately, it was selfish talent with unwarranted snotty, know-it-all attitudes. 

The players themselves said as much, and throughout the course of the year, reports of players running their mouths in practice and away from formal team areas painted a picture of Razorback athletes, many of whom had no skins on the wall, deciding they know better than the staff, so no need in getting on board with the plan put forth by Musselman.

Kiffin’s secret weapon for team chemistry

The truth is as expectations soar for Ole Miss football, no portal player or class is guaranteed success. Kiffin knows how to nuance the portal to get players to campus, but once it’s time to blend them into a cohesive unit personalities come into play. 

In this effort, Kiffin has a secret weapon for this team. His name is Jaxson Dart.

Once the Rebels’ quarterback decided to return after passing for 3,364 yards with 23 touchdowns and a school-record-low five interceptions he became one of Kiffin’s chief recruiters. That’s in convincing players to stay and convincing others to come.

Kiffin said Dart influenced both sides of the ball.

“I think that a number of guys would say, especially offensively. I think the receivers would tell you that, like Juice Wells. Not just portal guys, but even the guys that came back like Tre (Harris), like Prieskorn (tight end, Caden). They would tell you that he recruited them really well too.

“I don’t know that I’ve seen over time a player actively recruit more to put together a team on both sides of the ball than Jaxson did this off-season. It says a lot about him, says a lot about being a leader, even potentially as a head coach one day if he wants to be. He has really special qualities, and one of them is to get people to follow him,” Kiffin said.

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