In just a season and a half in Nashville, Jordan Rodgers did something no other Vanderbilt quarterback had ever done; he started in two bowl games.
The Rodgers era had its ups and downs, but the junior college transfer grew into the position behind center and developed into the strongest QB that the Commodores had seen since Jay Cutler left Nashville. Rodgers started his SEC career as a skittish passer with little pocket awareness and grew into a player that showed confidence in his offensive line, his receivers, and most importantly himself.
That confidence will be the key as Vanderbilt heads into their 2013 season. Rodgers was only able to reconcile his physical talents and grow from a passer into a quarterback when he finally began to understand how plays were going to unfold in front of him and learned to trust himself. While a major part of that transformation came through the development of an improved offensive line, the biggest piece of the Vandy QB's progress came between his ears rather than on the field.
James Franklin and the Commodore staff are hoping that the learning curve won't be as steep with this year's projected starter Austyn Carta-Samuels. Carta-Samuels's resume puts him ahead of where Rodgers had been in his first active season in the NCAA. While JR was still adjusting from two strong years in junior college, Carta-Samuels has the experience of two years of BCS play - including a 2009 season that earned him Mountain West Freshman of the Year honors - that should give him the backbone he needs to operate under James Franklin's system.
Carta-Samuels will also have a stronger support network than Rodgers did in 2011. For one, his offensive line, led by stalwart Wesley Johnson, is better and deeper than ever before. His receiving corp includes a duo that may be the NCAA's best tandem. His tight ends, led by "this-is-only-my-second-year-doing-this" Kris Kentera, Steven Scheu, and Dillon van der Wal, should become a more reliable unit as well.
On paper, Carta-Samuels should have a greater opportunity to succeed than his predecessor, but he'll have to channel the confidence to take advantage of these tools. If he can't, Vandy has a solid, but untested, depth chart behind him. Let's take a look at the candidates to be taking snaps for the Commodores in 2013.
Austyn Carta-Samuels - See above. Carta-Samuels has a stronger arm than Rodgers before him and a similar ability to extend plays with his legs, although he won't be called on to run as much as JR had been in 2012. He has a strong rapport with his receivers, and he seemed to emphasize his roommate, Chris Boyd, in his lone start against Presbyterian last year. A blowout win over the Blue Hose won't tell us much, but the redshirt senior passed for 195 yards (13 completions in 20 attempts) and added 18 yards on the ground in the 58-0 rout.
"ACS" may struggle with accuracy for the 'Dores. His career completion rate is less than 60 percent and he's got a 20:13 TD:INT ratio. Those numbers put him roughly in line with Rodgers before him and he'll have a stronger receiving corps than he was ever presented with in Wyoming. However, he'll also be facing the toughest, fastest defenses that he's ever seen. He underperformed against some of the better teams that he faced with the Cowboys, struggling against programs like Texas, BYU, and Utah in his first two seasons of NCAA play. He's two years removed from those performances, and while it's likely he's grown as a player, Vandy fans won't know just how far he's come until he takes the field against Ole Miss.
Despite these questions, Carta-Samuels looks like the right man for the job. He can tap into the confidence of past starting experience and rise to the expectations set before him. With a stronger, deeper offensive line in front of him, there's a reason to believe that he can put together a finer season than Rodgers did in 2012.
Patton Robinette - The redshirt freshman was a surprise commitment for Vanderbilt two years ago. Robinette, a Maryville, TN native, had already reported to Chapel Hill to play for North Carolina when he reversed course and signed up to play for James Franklin. The 6'4" passer has a strong presence in the pocket but is also an underrated runner when the situation calls for it.
Robinette was lauded for his football IQ coming out of high school, and the fact that he's been presented as a legitimate challenger for the starting spot in his second year at Vanderbilt is a testament to that. He's able to read defenses well and adjust on the fly, but time will tell how long it takes him to get used to the vaunted speed of SEC defenders. His quick feet make him a threat to pull down the ball when plays aren't developing downfield, and his straight-line speed means that he can not only spot holes but also run through them for big gains.
He doesn't have Carta-Samuels's arm strength, and he's still largely untested. Still, no one is ruling Robinette out of the Commodore quarterback race just yet. If he can come on strong and excel in summer practices he can push ACS for snaps when Ole Miss comes to town on August 29th.
Josh Grady - Grady hasn't made much of an impact on the field, but his name is well known by Commodore fans thanks to his gregarious personality and his team-first attitude. The Florida native came to Vanderbilt as a quarterback but was switched to wide receiver (and a potential wildcat weapon) for the 2012 season. He earned a few touches as an X factor last fall, but a clogged depth chart at wideout meant that his value to the team was behind center. He'll compete for the starting QB job this summer, but he may still need polishing when it comes to identifying defenses and getting the ball downfield.
Grady is one of Vanderbilt's best athletes, and it would be a surprise if Franklin and his crew didn't find some role that put the ball in his hands this fall. The Commodores are still the team that found a way to make D.J. Moore, Jamie Graham, and Casey Hayward into touchdown threats on offense. Even if Grady isn't the starter, expect him to find the endzone in 2013.
Johnny McCrary - McCrary is a big time prospect that showed off his Vanderbilt commitment at the Under Armour All-American game last winter. The 6'3" dual threat quarterback turned down offers from Alabama, Florida State, Georgia, Ohio State, and Notre Dame to be the future of Vandy's passing game. The Georgian spent this spring in Nashville to kick off his college career early, and he culminated that season with a solid 108-yard, one touchdown performance in the Vanderbilt Black & Gold game. While it was clear that he still had work to do - almost half of his yards came on a single reception to Tip McKenzie - it was a promising start.
McCrary has the instincts to get himself out of - and into - trouble. He's got some bad habits that allowed him to excel in high school that will need to be broken against faster, more disciplined defenses. Still, he's a strong-armed passer with quick feet and high-level athleticism. He's a big mound of potential, and while he may not see much action in 2013 he'll be a big part of this team's roster going forward.