OXFORD, Miss. – Bo Wallace wanted to be the hero.
Hobbled and hurting, Wallace took off through a sea of maroon, nearly 12 yards away from the end zone. If he had successfully crossed the goal line, Ole Miss’ quarterback would have put the Rebels within an extra point of tying archrival Mississippi State in overtime.
But the fickle college football gods had other plans. He was stripped of the ball around the 2-yard line, sending the ball into the end zone into the hands of the enemy.
As the Bulldogs celebrated a bowl berth, Wallace was sprawled on the ground at the edge of the end zone.
“That was the worst thing that could have happened to me, as a quarterback here,” Wallace told ESPN.com in March.
Wallace truly has had a Jekyll-and-Hyde career with the Rebels. Case in point, Wallace turned around a month later to lead the Rebels to a 25-17 win over Georgia Tech in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl with 342 total yards and three touchdowns.
“I knew I had to put up numbers; we [had] to win this game so that myself and these fans can somewhat forget about the Egg Bowl,” Wallace said.
Well, good luck in getting Ole Miss fans to forget that loss. But Wallace showed that he can be an effective quarterback in big moments. He’s just had quite the flair for the dramatic during his career. A week before the State game, an ill Wallace threw for 244 yards with no touchdowns and an interception in a 24-10 loss to Missouri. This was all after winning four games in a row.
There has been plenty of turbulence in Wallace’s storm of a career, but he’s ready to prove himself for a final time in Oxford.
Entering his final season with the Rebels, the microscope is focused a little closer, the expectations are higher and his shoulder is finally healthy.
“I’ve never really been healthy my whole career here,” Wallace said. “I’ve probably played two healthy games, and those were my first two my sophomore year.”
Wallace doesn’t use his shoulder as a crutch, but it has kept him from being 100 percent during his two years on the field. After suffering through most of the 2012 season and undergoing offseason surgery in 2013, Wallace hasn’t felt the joy of a healthy throw in a long time.
“His arm strength from Week 1 to the end of the season, it declined consistently throughout the year,” coach Hugh Freeze said.
If you look carefully at the way Wallace threw the ball at the end of last year -- a year in which he passed for 3,346 with 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions -- you can tell that his arm slot came down to a more sidearm-style delivery. After an offseason and spring of rehab and fewer reps, Wallace says his arm slot is back up and so is the zip he once had on his passes.
“It’s definitely coming out of my hand more naturally,” a relieved Wallace said with a glowing smile. “I have more pop to it than I did at the end of the year.”
Wallace is throwing the ball better than he has in years, but his coaches were careful with him during the spring. With an important battle raging behind him for the No. 2 quarterback spot, Freeze and his staff decided to scale down his arm work.
Wallace admits it was frustrating to have to sit and watch at times, but he made sure to take mental reps, watched even more film during his down time and became more of a leader to the younger quarterbacks.
That last statement might be what separates Wallace from the quarterback he’s been in the past, according to teammates. His arm strength is key to the final step in his in-game development, but the command he’s taken in the locker room and in the huddle this spring impressed the players around him.
“He’s our team,” defensive end C.J. Johnson said. “With him offensively, he’s been in the system so long, he understands it now. He’s more of a leader. I mean he’s been a leader ever since he’s been here, but he’s turned it up a notch.”
Spring improvements are one thing, but translating that under the lights of a Saturday afternoon in the SEC is totally different. Everyone around Wallace knows that. Cutting down the mistakes that have plagued him in games will require physical and mental strength.
Freeze hopes that more confidence in Wallace’s arm will lead to less head-scratching when the ball leaves his quarterback’s hand.
“Bo is really who he’s gonna be,” Freeze said. “I don’t know how much better we can get him, but I do know this: If he has consistent arm strength throughout the entire season [this fall], it will be to our benefit.”