This summer was different for quarterback Jaxson Dart. What it means for Ole Miss football

Mississippi Clarion-Ledger
OXFORD — After he spent the better part of four hours instructing a youth football camp at Oxford Middle School in the mid-July sun, Ole Miss quarterback Jaxson Dart lingered.
Oxford looked familiar with Dart − and Dart with Oxford. It's a new luxury for Dart, who transferred from USC for his sophomore season in 2022. And one which has implications on the field and in the locker room, and changed Dart's approach to the offseason.
"For me, it's more just my learning regiment, my routine each day," Dart said before he trudged off the field that afternoon. "It's not as much getting to know the offense, it's learning a lot more stuff about the defense and the schematics of why Coach (Charlie) Weis (Jr.) is calling each play. Just the reasoning behind everything. What is he looking at? Me and him getting on the exact same page has been huge for us."
On the field, Dart's solidified roots rewarded him with a strong spring period in which he did not turn the ball over.
Off of it, he's stepped forward to try and reconstruct a team culture that several Ole Miss players have pointed toward when asked to dissect what ailed the Rebels in their 1-5 finish to the 2022 campaign.
"It's been established that we need to create a great culture, because culture is what creates success," Dart said. "I think just as the players, we've had a lot more player-led meetings this summer so far, making sure everybody's on the exact same page."
Jaxson Dart’s leadership impact for Ole Miss football
Dart is quiet in his leadership, Rebels coach Lane Kiffin said at SEC Media Days. But the time he's putting into forging relationships is beginning to show.
"There's a lot of great quiet leaders," Kiffin said. "He's a phenomenal listener, and he spends a lot of time with our players, listening and helping them. So, it's just kind of a different way to lead maybe than most people think. And I know our players respect him a lot for that."
Indeed, just ask veteran defensive lineman Cedric Johnson.
"Great quarterback, great leader," Johnson said. "Vocally, he always pushes us every day when we're working out in the summer. (He's) helping us overcome those hard practices that we've been doing. The runs, no matter how fatigued we are, he makes sure that he's still our leader. He still leads."
Who is Ole Miss football’s starting quarterback?
If Dart's environment is becoming increasingly familiar, so is the lack of public clarity on the quarterback depth chart.
He's been involved in some type of quarterback competition in each of his three seasons of college football, with Oklahoma State transfer Spencer Sanders now standing where Luke Altmyer did a season ago.
Kiffin has not yet indicated a willingness to provide any hints on how he views the depth chart hierarchy. But Dart, when addressing the topic in the spring, did not waver in his view of the situation.
"To be honest, I just view myself as the starter," he said then.
"I feel like I've taken ownership of that," he continued. "I'm just ready to do my job. I'm loving where I'm at right now."
Since the transfer portal floodgates truly opened in 2020, there have been two SEC quarterbacks so far who have left another program and completed two seasons as full-time starters.
One is Kentucky's Will Levis, whose production fell in his second season in part because he played two fewer games. The Wildcats went 7-6 in 2022, compared to 10-3 in 2021.
If Dart is indeed the player to lead the Ole Miss offense, the Rebels will be hoping for a jump like the one Tennessee got from Hendon Hooker. Hooker threw for about 200 more yards in 2022 than 2021, despite playing in two fewer games. More importantly, he played a role in leading Tennessee to an 11-win season after only seven victories the year before.
Dart, a true junior, is younger than both Levis and Hooker were when they began their second campaigns in Lexington and Knoxville, respectively. That, in theory, means more room to grow. And what we've seen this offseason looks a lot like growth − as a leader and a player.
The true test comes in September, though. And Ole Miss seems determined to make Dart earn the right to take it.
"It's a really competitive room," Kiffin said. "And it's in much better shape, which is our goal as a staff for an entire roster, each position group to try to make them more competitive and more balanced throughout."

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