Another week of scrimmages has added fuel to the fire of this year's quarterback race at Vanderbilt. Incumbent Jordan Rodgers put together a three touchdown performance against the Vandy defense on Saturday to maintain his spot at the top of the pecking order. However, the two players behind him didn't give him much breathing room.
Austyn Carta-Samuels and Patton Robinette both put up solid numbers against a limited-contact rush. Robinette, a true freshman, completed 7-9 passes for 112 yards, but most of that came on an 80 yard touchdown to Daniel Hagaman. Carta-Samuels went 7-10 on the day and finished with 62 yards. While both will have the opportunity to press for more playing time, Carta-Samuels is the clear second option right now thanks to his edge in experience and strength over Robinette.
If Carta-Samuels can keep using his big arm to make plays, he could be option #1 or #1B sooner rather than later. Both his yards per completion (8.86 to 7.55) and yards per attempt (6.2 to 4.88) were higher than Rodgers's in this week's contest, though the two were matched up with different level receivers and defenders throughout the scrimmage. While Carta-Samuels has been cutting his teeth with some of the team's less heralded pass-catchers, he's been able to turn some heads on West End.
None of this comes as much of a surprise, however. The redshirt junior was an under-the-radar transfer coming from Wyoming, but a significant one for a team that James Franklin was beginning to turn around. The 6'1", 225 pound quarterback was a three-star recruit out of San Jose and the Cowboys' highest-rated recruit of their 2009 class. His impact was immediate in Laramie; he split time with an ineffective Robert Benjamin in the first game of his college career and led the Cowboys to scoring drives of 80, 72, and 30 yards to defeat Weber State.
Three months later, he led his team to a double overtime bowl victory over Fresno State. It was only Wyoming's second bowl win since 1966.
His performance was enough to earn Mountain West Freshman of the Year honors in 2009. However, that prosperity didn't last. Wyoming fell to 3-9 in Carta-Samuels's sophomore year thanks in part to injuries and a dearth of offensive talent. Soon after, he announced his intentions to transfer away from Laramie.
Originally, reports suggested that the quarterback would head to a junior college in California to work on his mechanics before jumping back to the NCAA. He was then reported to have chosen Arizona, but was a no-show when practices began there. While rumors swirled that the talented passer had picked Vandy early in the summer, the school didn't confirm anything until August. He was finally able to practice with the team while sitting out a redshirt season when fall practices started.
In less than a year in Nashville, the junior has emerged as a legitimate starting option for the Commodores. Carta-Samuels has the biggest arm amongst the team's dueling quarterbacks, and his strength and accuracy gives this team a player who could be their most accurate passer since Jay Cutler rode through town. Carta-Samuels is also a running threat, having gained over 300 yards on the ground in each of his years at Wyoming. However, he lacks the speed and improvisation that Jordan Rodgers brings to the table in front of him.
Despite Carta-Samuels's time in a non-BCS conference, he's gained plenty of experience against some of the NCAA's toughest teams. In his two years at Wyoming, he faced defenses from Texas, Boise State, TCU, and BYU. Still, adjusting to Ess-Eee-Cee team speed will be a major factor in his learning curve at Vanderbilt. It took Rodgers a season and a half to recognize what opposing defenses were throwing at him, and his gradual improvement came with plenty of mistakes in the meantime.
That adjustment period is what will keep Rodgers in the driver's seat of this quarterback battle into the fall. While Carta-Samuels has a strong NCAA resume, he can't match up with Jordan Rodgers's experience in starts against Arkansas and Florida or in wins over Kentucky and Wake Forest. However, what he can do is present a more stable version of Larry Smith for a Commodore team that needs all the talent that it can get at quarterback.
Smith was ineffective last season at quarterback, but was needed behind an inconsistent Rodgers in 2011. His return after Rodgers's 4-14 performance in the Liberty Bowl nearly led the team to a comeback win over Cincinnati in December. He has since graduated, leaving a spot available for someone new to make a push for that starting spot.
Carta-Samuels can present a more accurate passer behind an incumbent who had a knack for big plays but only completed more that 60 percent of his throws just once in his 2011 starts. Carta-Samuels did that six times as a freshman alone. While both are strong players, neither one is a sure thing. Having a measure of competition and stability on the team's depth chart should prove to pay dividends for both these players and the team.
Austyn Carta-Samuels could end up ascending to become a SEC starting quarterback this season, but he won't be able to do that unless he improves throughout 2012 (barring an injury). In the meantime, he'll give this team a high level backup and someone to push Rodgers every step of the way. With a coach like James Franklin, who helped get players like Josh Freeman and Danny O'Brien on track, it wouldn't be a surprise to see Carta-Samuels develop into a first-tier SEC quarterback. He'll just have to get through Jordan Rodgers first.