Heading into the 2012 season, it looked as though Vanderbilt may have had as many as eight quarterbacks dotting their depth chart. Just one week into spring practices, that number has been whittled down to three.
The Commodores will have their most compelling positional battle behind center in 2012, as two established veterans and one highly-touted freshman compete for snaps at quarterback. The incumbent, Jordan Rodgers, took over at QB six games into the 2011 season and guided the team to three wins and three close losses before flaming out in the Liberty Bowl. His main competition, Austyn Carta-Samuels, is the 2009 Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year and is finally eligible for SEC play after sitting out last season. Behind these two is true freshman Patton Robinette, an Elite 11 selection in high school and a rare early enrollee for the Commodores.
The concentration of strength at the position was enough to convince coach James Franklin to make some personnel changes. Touted 2010 recruits LaFonte Thorogood, Josh Grady, and Kris Kentera were all moved to different positions in a quest to find more playing time. Thorogood, at 220 pounds, will give the team some heft as a power runner out of the backfield. Kentera will also look to pack on muscle and vie for time as the team's H-back/tight end hybrid. Grady will earn reps as a slot receiver.
Any of the three could move back to quarterback if the conditions arise, but Franklin is sending a clear message with the moves. The onus is now on Rodgers and Carta-Samuels to carry this team in 2012. Robinette - and later Jonathan McCrary - will be groomed for the future.
It's a move that needed to be done. The Commodores have two solid quarterbacks in their midst that can both function as valuable SEC starters. Behind them, they have their best QB recruit in years - a player who will hold that title for exactly one year should McCrary's commitment hold. With a spread like that, it's no wonder that Danny O'Brien chose a virtually competition-free stint at Wisconsin (sorry, Jon Budmayr) over reuniting with his former coordinator Franklin.
So what can we expect in the early stages of competition? We'll be breaking down the three candidates for Vanderbilt's quarterback spot over the next week here at Anchor of Gold. Today, we'll start with everyone's favorite onesie-wearing passer, Jordan Rodgers.
Jordan Rodgers - Rodgers came to Nashville after spending two years at Butte College in California. The transfer quarterback, who happens to be the younger brother of NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers, struggled through shoulder injuries in his first season and redshirted before pushing Larry Smith for the starting job to start 2011. While the incumbent Smith took the reins to begin the season, Rodgers eventually won the spot after the team's offense sputtered in losses to South Carolina and Alabama.
The redshirt junior led the team to the Liberty Bowl behind a strong arm and active legs. Rodgers worked well with a rebuilding offensive line to create plays and turn a stagnant Vandy offense into a potent one. Though he struggled with his accuracy, he still threw for over 150 yards in five of his six starts. By comparison, Smith hit the 150 yard mark five times in three whole seasons at Vanderbilt. In his regular season starts, Rodgers averaged 210 passing yards, 49 rushing yards, and two touchdowns per game.
Unfortunately, Rodgers's performance in the Liberty Bowl against Cincinnati has raised concerns about his talents. He completed just 4 passes for 26 yards in a dismal showing that suggested that he's still got plenty of work to do to in order to become a high level quarterback. The senior has a strong, accurate arm but questions remain about his ability to run an offense. He looked lost in NCAA play early in the season, struggling against defensive pressure and being prone to making mistakes. While he addressed those problems as the season wore on, he still couldn't shake some of the dumb mistakes that haunted him. Rodgers is still subject to making bad decisions and forcing passes that should not be thrown.
Despite these issues, it was Rodgers's presence that drove this team to a bowl game and made the Vanderbilt offense fun to watch again. He's a strong player who improved throughout 2011, and he'll look to keep that momentum moving forward in 2012. He'll be pushed once again for that starting spot like he was last season, and the pressure he gets from Carta-Samuels should help make a competitive athlete even stronger. While he's no lock to keep his starting position, it's safe to say that he's a strong favorite amongst both the coaches and the fans out on Natchez Trace.
Next up, we'll look at Rodgers's main competition for snaps this season - Austyn Carta-Samuels.