The biggest question facing the Vanderbilt offense this fall is a simple one: who starts at quarterback?
The Commodores have three high-level passers competing for the chance to open the season against Temple on August 28th. However, only one of those men has ever thrown a pass in a game for Vanderbilt.
That would be Patton Robinette, the sophomore quarterback who led Vandy to wins over Houston and Tennessee in Austyn Carta-Samuels's absence. He's looking to turn that experience into a full-time starting role, but he's got stiff competition. Army All-American Johnny McCrary is ready to make an impact for this team after redshirting in 2013. Next to him, LSU transfer Stephen Rivers is intent on proving that he can be a starting talent in the SEC.
That's an embarrassment of riches compared to some of the quarterback platoons of the past. Vanderbilt may have the deepest class of quarterbacks that they've rostered in the modern era, but that won't mean a thing unless one player can evolve into a high-level starter for new head coach Derek Mason. With the team moving towards a west coast offense, having an accurate passer who can make throws to every corner of the field will be more valuable than ever.
That'll put a lot of pressure on three athletes who have thrown a combined total of 71 passes in the NCAA over their careers. The Commodores will have plenty of options when it comes to leading this offense, but there will be plenty of growing pains that come along with breaking in a new quarterback and a new offense. Here's a better look at the players who will be slinging passes for Vanderbilt this fall.
The Three-Man Race for a Starting Spot
Patton Robinette (6'4", 214 lbs): Robinette has had a busy acclimation to Nashville since spurning North Carolina in the spring of 2012. He turned heads with his work as a redshirt freshman, pushed Austyn Carta-Samuels for the starting job in 2013's summer camp, and eventually scored the winning, come-from-behind touchdown to beat Tennessee in Knoxville. He's built quite a name for himself - and he's still got three years of eligibility left with the team.
Despite starting three games last season, he will not be guaranteed the premier role behind center for the 'Dores this fall. Robinette will have an advantage thanks to his game experience but he still left several questions about his passing ability with his play last fall. He struggled to keep up with faster SEC defenses and slung passes behind his windows of opportunity downfield. This led to a low completion rate (52.3 percent) and more interceptions than touchdowns. He was more efficient as a runner (214 yards) and had a knack for extending drives in clutch situations, but there are still issues with his ability to throw the ball downfield that will have to be addressed before he can win the starting QB role outright.
Robinette is an athletic quarterback who can replicate what Jordan Rodgers was able to do for this team with his short-range passing and ability to scramble for key yards. He's a more accurate passer than his 2013 numbers would suggest. He's not going to roll over and cede his position on the depth chart, but it will be difficult for him to find the field in big games if he hasn't learned to read defenses and find holes better than he did as a redshirt freshman.
Johnny McCrary (6'4'', 230 lbs): McCrary is not going to be an easy man to sack. At 230 pounds (up 40 since his senior year of high school) he's got the size of a linebacker but the athleticism to become one of the SEC's top dual-threat quarterbacks. The redshirt freshman had a solid spring that inched him in front of Robinette on Derek Mason's initial depth charts, but he's still got plenty of work to do in order to lock down a starting position for the reloading Commodores.
McCrary is a dual-threat quarterback who is able to read defenses quickly and make a decision whether to check down or run with the ball in order to sustain drives. There's a big difference between doing that against high school teams and SEC defenses, but the Vandy coaching staff has been pleased with his playmaking ability so far. Add a power arm to that equation and you can see why he was an Army All-American back in 2012. There are still questions that remain about his accuracy, but he's the most exciting athlete that the 'Dores will roll out at the QB slot this fall.
Stephen Rivers (6'7", 235 lbs): Like Jordan Rodgers before him, Rivers is a transfer student who is looking to make an impact as a starter for the Vanderbilt Commodores. Also like Rodgers, he's the younger brother of one of the NFL's better quarterbacks. The one thing that separates them? Rivers does not have the top-shelf twitter game that JR brought to Nashville with him.
Well, there's certainly more than that, but it would be no surprise if Rivers usurped the starting role and developed into the effective type of passer that Rodgers was for the Commodores in 2012. He's a solid athlete who brings some limited game experience with him from LSU. He backed up Zach Mettenberger in 2012 but threw just two passes that season and eventually dropped down the depth chart, leading to his transfer. He's a solid pocket passer who is accurate and powerful when he plants his feet and identifies a target. He's also an underrated runner who can extend plays thanks to his quietly effective scrambling, but he's not as talented as McCrary or Robinette in that regard. He's the closet thing Mason will have to a pure pocket passer in 2014's quarterback race at Vanderbilt, and he'll have to prove that his passing can produce more than his peers' dual-threat capabilities can in his first year with the 'Dores.
The Old Standby
Josh Grady (6'0", 202 lbs): Grady just recently moved back to wide receiver, but he'll still be available to the Commodores as an emergency (or wildcat) passer should Derek Mason need him. The fourth-year junior is a high-energy athlete who can break plays open with his quick hips and strong field vision. As a quarterback he's the kind of player who is comfortable making decisions on the run. He'll have the chance to harness that ability as a receiver - where he's more likely to see playing time - and develop into a big-play threat for Vanderbilt this fall.
The New Guys
Wade Freebeck (6'5", 212 lbs): Scouting services weren't sure exactly where to rank Freeback as a high school senior, but one thing is clear - the kid looks like a quarterback should. At 6'5" and a still-growing 212 pounds he has prototypical size to command the pocket and see clearly downfield. That's what he did as a Florida high schooler, finding targets at all ranges and identifying the holes that opposing defensive packages gave him. He has excellent vision and projects to be a solid pocket passer, but he'll have to continue to add strength if he's going to be consistently effective against SEC defenses. Expect him to redshirt this fall.
Shawn Stankavage (6'2", 185 lbs): Stankavage comes from NFL bloodlines; his father Scott played for both the Denver Broncos and the Miami Dolphins in the 1980s. As a result, he's a polished passer who, like Freebeck, identifies his passing opportunities well. His stock as a recruit took a hit due to a torn ACL as a high school junior, but he has the passing talent to justify Derek Mason's faith. Moreover, he's a crafty scrambler who isn't afraid to leave the pocket and rip off yards despite his label as a pocket passer.
However, he's the smallest quarterback on the roster and may struggle to show the same kind of play-extending athleticism that Robinette and McCrary have outside the tackle box against faster defenses. Those unknowns made him an under the radar prospect, but he'll have plenty of time to develop on the Commodores' roster. Moreover, if Stankavage ascends to a starting role and adopts the nickname "King Stank," I will be the happiest Vanderbilt fan in the world.