Since Jay Cutler's departure, there hasn't been a wealth of stability at quarterback at Vanderbilt. Chris Nickson's promising start in 2007 was derailed by injuries and mental lapses. The same can be said for Mackenzi Adams, whose performance was based more on heart than accurate passing and timely audibles. The Nickson/Adams era, which was surprisingly successful despite their shortcomings, gave way to a promising young passer in Larry Smith, who started the team's only bowl win since the Korean War. Smith was a beacon of hope, an athletic specimen with a strong arm, decent vision downfield, and the capacity to grow under a strong coaching staff. Things looked good (at least by Vandy standards) until the 2009 season hit.
That year's 2-10 disaster sucked the life out of the offense in Nashville and the will to coach out of Bobby Johnson. Smith completed just 46.7% of his passes that year - an impressive feat when you consider how much time he spent on his back behind an impotent offensive line. His receivers didn't provide much support either; a corps of Alex Washington, John Cole, and Udom Udoh often failed to get open even in single coverage and often were the culprits of drive-killing, momentum-squashing drops on the occasions when Smith was able to find them downfield.
As a result, Commodore fans and even coaches have lost faith in Larry, and the question of "who will start at quarterback in 2010?" has become a very real concern. Compounding these concerns is the presence of new head coach Robbie Caldwell, and concerns over whether he'll have the same yo-yo strategy when it comes to QB starts as his predecessor and colleague Bobby Johnson. With open practices coming up this week, we'll soon have a better idea of who has the edge to start against Northwestern; whoever takes the most snaps, barring injuries, will be the odds-on favorite to take the field against the Wildcats. Let's break down the candidates:
The favorite: Larry Smith - Smith had a dismal season following his promising(-ish) 1-0 campaign in the 2008 Music City Bowl, passing for just 125 yards per game and putting up a JaMarcus Russell-esque 4:7 TD:INT ratio. The dual-threat quarterback has shown to be less of a running threat than Chris Nickson and the surprisingly elusive Mackenzi Adams before him, but part of that can be chalked up to a horrible offensive line rather than Smith's ability to create space from defenders. A former Mr. Football out of Alabama, the junior has a strong arm and is relatively accurate, though since he is a victim of dropped passes and hurried throws his stats don't reflect that. This also led to some poor decision making on the field, as Smith is prone to panic and leave the pocket early, force passes into tight coverage, and leave himself open for turnovers and major losses of yardage.
Thanks to injuries, whoever gets the starting spot will play behind an offensive line that has just one starter with more than a full season's experience returning, thanks to injuries. We already know that Smith struggles against strong pass rushes, and with a weak o-line, every SEC team and most of the out-of-conference teams are going to seem pretty fierce. The junior will have opportunities to prove that he can turn chicken crap into chicken salad behind his patchwork line, but expect a quick hook if he displays the deer-in-the-headlights mentality that too often disrupted his play when faced with blitzes and collapsing pockets.
Still, Smith is the most talented of the group at quarterback, and with a strong work ethic, fans will have to hope that his on-the-field IQ has gone up a few points over an extra year of playing time. He'll no longer get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to mistakes as a junior, and the spotlight will shine extra brightly on his as he tries to reconcile his natural talent with the freshly-planted offensive line and receiving corps around him.
The Steady Competition: Jared Funk - Funk, a former three-star recruit, has spent the majority of his time at Vanderbilt leading the scout team in practice and bulking up in order to see some field time. In his three eligible years, the senior has thrown zero passes and has just one special teams tackle to his credit on the field. However, despite his inexperience, ESPN's Chris Low reported that he's been the guy to push Larry Smith for the starting position the most through the spring, and any of the playing time that Funk receives will be a testament to his hard work.
Funk is similar to Smith in his ability to explore the pocket thanks to some live legs, but he lacks the overall arm strength of the incumbent. However, Funk's strength in practice is in his accuracy and consistency - though both are elements that change rapidly when faced with SEC-caliber pass rushes. It is likely the Funk will see the field in 2010, though probably as a back-up, since he brings a "slow and steady" presence behind Smith's more reckless but ultimately more talented quarterbacking abilities. The dual-threat QB out of Illinois could be the next Mackenzi Adams for this squad, and despite his flaws, Adams was a very valuable piece on a bowl-winning team.
The X-Factor: Jordan Rodgers - Vanderbilt's first prominent junior college transfer has some impressive blood lines as the younger brother of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Like his brother, Rodgers has a strong arm and can rack up big yardage throwing downfield, giving him the edge over both competitors in a pure passing breakdown. Questions remain about his ability to make the leap to the SEC though, and a shaky spring performance has put him towards the back of the QB rotation heading into full pads practices.
Rodgers's strength in the pocket is something that will be tested immensely behind the team's offensive line. Though he was prolific as a JUCO passer, the translation to the speed of the Southeastern Conference could end up sinking his playing time in 2010. Though he's a solid athlete, he lacks the running ability that Smith and even Funk have, which have been a staple of the Vanderbilt offense since Jay Cutler's departure; however, it's also fair to note that the Vandy offense has fallen onto rough times behind more mobile quarterbacks, and that Rodgers's presence could be the right combination under a Herb Hand-led offense.
With so many question marks regarding both the offense and Rodgers's ability to play in the SEC after a successful JUCO career, it's tough to define his role this early in the season. He could end up starting the last six games of the season and instilling a new brand of hope in Commodore fans, or he could be the odd man out and man a clipboard for most of the season. While Rodgers brings potentially the most upside of the three in a traditional quarterback sense, his lackluster spring performance, as well as the lingering questions concerning offensive gameplanning under a new regime, make the junior signal caller a true x-factor on a team that's in need of a talent infusion.
If I had to guess - and this is a vague issue since full practices haven't even begun yet - I'd say that Larry Smith starts eight games, then cedes way to Rodgers and Funk for a pair of games each, either through ineffectiveness or injury. Even if Smith has grown considerably as a quarterback, the relative inexperience of his supporting cast in the passing game will have a negative effect on the young man's development, leading to opportunities for the other QBs in Vandy's stable.
What do you think? Let us know in the poll.
*Sorry about my recent absence everyone. Just took a new job and moved up to Madison, WI, so things have been very busy (i.e. drinking, eating cheese, etc) up here. I'll do my best to be less worthless come the actual start of football season, I swear.