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Observations From Open Practice: McCrary Rising, Young Guns Emerging

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Johnny McCrary appears to have taken the reins in Vanderbilt's ongoing quarterback battle, while junior college transfer Nehemiah Mitchell looks like the Commodores' pick to start alongside Stephen Weatherly at OLB.

Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports

It's early August, and I have nothing better to do except go watch people my age be way more successful than me. Yay football! Or not. After last year's Vanderbilt football debacle, some of us are probably hoping we could skip straight to November or even February. I am definitely not in either group. In fact, some weird feeling of optimism had taken over in the the previous weeks; then Derek Mason presented the public a chance to see if they had any reason to be optimistic. What follows are the notes of a mostly untrained eye in no particular order. Hopefully, our resident football guru(s) will not find it necessary to shred these observations too brutally.

Donovan Sheffield started off individual drills right in front of me. They were working on goal line coverage. The freshman corner struggled a bit, and the assistant whose name I do not know was working heavily with him to rectify those mistakes. Mason came over and was working with him also. The positive is that Sheffield was not repeating mistakes, and the issues seemed to stem simply from being unfamiliar with the leverage schemes not rather than being bad at coverage.

Staying on the defensive side of the ball, Nehemiah Mitchell got his fair share of reps with the presumed first defense. He was opposite Weatherly, and the pair makes for a very intimidating OLB duo. In our base look, both of them are playing on the line, and our defense essentially becomes a 5-2. Mitchell's speed definitely will prohibit him from doing much more in coverage than protect the flat.

Other new linebackers had some bright spots. In an 11-on-11 thud session near the end of practice, Josh Smith blasted through the line to meet McCrary just as Johnny set in his drop. The rest of the defense and Mason were really fired up by the play. Khari Blasingame also caught my eye for what was originally a mistake. In a goal line defense, he lost track of Dallas Rivers in the flat. The defense got away with it when Rivers failed to recognize the opportunity and never got his head around to find the pass coming his way. Mason really lit into him about the coverage.

After a play off, Blasingame decided to get back into Mason's good graces by shedding a TE's block and wrapping Webb up behind the line. Personally, seeing the young guys be able to bounce back is just as important as seeing them succeed in the first place.

Moving to the offensive side of the ball, Josh Crawford was on his game today. The second play during a run/PA 11-on-11 session early in practice showed off his ability to make the hard cut then get up field. He showed multiple times that this was not a fluke. Crawford stayed low in his pads and made consistently intelligent, sharp cuts to find a seam in the defense and slip through. He also showed the necessary speed to pick up good yardage once he finds that hole.

Kris Kentera had another good day of practice. During Saturday's practice, he made a really nice diving catch on the sideline where he had to tap a foot down while flying out of bounds. Kentera is one of Freebeck's favorite targets and made a few more nice catches, including one for 30 or so yards. His hands have been sure; his only drop came when he slid to catch a low ball in traffic . He makes up for a lack of straight line speed by running precise routs and using his body to shield the ball while making catches with his hands in strong positions.

Unfortunately, the only notes and impressions left are from the QB battle. It is still a 3 man race, but the coaches appear to have a leader. Johnny McCrary took somewhere between 35 to 40 percent of the snaps during team drills. He did not waste them either. In the run/PA 11-on-11 period, he handed off 3 times in a row before throwing for a TD with his first pass. Coming out of the play action, he quickly set and fired to Latevius Rayford who ran a good post route to get inside his defender then turned on the jets to break away. That throw set the tone for his day. He was not perfect, but he only threw a couple balls that were not both catchable and good decisions. His passes, which had a tendency to wobble in 2014, were coming out as nice spirals too.

McCrary also showed that questions about his athleticism might simply be based on him not being given the chance to show it yet. In an up-tempo 11-on-11 period, he identified very good coverage and a gap to his right to sprint out for 6 or 7 yards, getting out of bounds before anyone could "hit" him. If McCrary can consistently perform like this and take it to the game field, he will be the starter. Then we can all be thankful that JMac was so loyal to Vanderbilt in turning down Alabama's constant attempts to steal him from us.

With one man starting to stake a very early and non-contact claim to the job, who looks most likely to be his backup? That question has a muddy answer. If Kyle Shurmur had performed Sunday like he did Saturday, he would be the answer. Today was simply not his day though. He fumbled a snap and was not as quick with his reads as McCrary, or even as quick as he was Saturday. A few throws escaped him too. It was a day lacking a big "wow" moment that left me wanting to see more. Hopefully, today was just a growing pain in what will be a very nice career at Vanderbilt. Shurmur got about a third of the snaps.

The third man in the battle also had the fewest reps by my estimation. His first toss was the long one to Kentera mentioned above. He immediately followed that by hitting Sherfield with a perfectly timed ball. Sherfield ran a post-corner combination and Freebeck put the pass where only Trent could get it. The receiver helped out by making sure to keep one foot in bounds just long enough to complete the catch. It was a smart, precise throw. Those two tosses would stand as his highlights. They were nice plays, but they proved to be a tease. After fumbling a few snaps yesterday, Wade put another on the ground today. That habit is a bit worrisome and could explain why Shurmur got more snaps today by a noticeable, but not large, margin. Essentially, whatever McCrary gets beyond his one-third of the reps seems to come out of Wade's account. Luckily for Freebeck, he still has plenty of time to get back into the battle, even for the starting job. He just needs to minimize his mistakes and make more of the big-time throws that he can and has made in the past.

For anyone worried about the fact we have a 3-way competition at QB, I would suggest relaxing. We are now 4 days into fall camp. We have 25 days until we open against WKU and, more importantly, we are 18 days from entering the normal one-week preparation period for the opener. Ludwig is being very active at practice in working with the QBs to both develop all of them (because injuries do happen, so depth is never bad) while figuring out who gives us the best chance to succeed this season. The key thing here is that Shurmur has only been allowed to work out with the coaches in a real, meaningful way 4 times. They have to see what they have in him in order to figure out where he falls between redshirting and starting. That is no easy task.

Another key component of this battle is that the QBs all look comfortable together. When they come out, they are standing together and talking. Stankavage (who did not participate in team drills but did do some individual work when the QBs were doing their drills) spent a lot of time going over things with Shurmur. Three or four times, I noticed the two going over a particular progression or coverage. McCrary also seemed relaxed and was talking with both Freebeck and Shurmur when they were off together. Whatever pressure those three are feeling does not seem to be causing any personal riffs. In a tight battle, hopefully the QBs can maintain a good relationship and prevent any possible team splits that sometimes occur when other players feel and allegiance to a losing QB.

With the not-so-fun topic of the QB battle behind me, it is time to look at some odd tidbits I noticed. Practice opened with tackling fundamentals and lots of it. It was a bit amusing to watch guys like Weatherly smash through tackling dummies, but the coaches were really driving home the finer points of the technique. The players may not have been thrilled, but they were putting in the work. As practice went on with them being told not to go to ground (basically, they are confined to wrap-up and thud sessions), it became all too apparent that the defense will relish Monday's practice when they will be in full gear for the first time. That fire and desire to make contact will hopefully force our offense to gel quickly to prevent seeing their teammates be on the receiving end of solid contact.

The offense also went up-tempo for one 8 play session. We managed to get through 8 plays in 3 minutes (almost to the second) while still making lots of subs and rotations. The guys were at essentially warp speed, and they did it well. Calls were communicated and executed offensively and defensively with little error to my eye. The ability to play fast and smart seems to be one of Mason's major points of emphasis since practices have been and will be run at that pace for entire practices going forward. A key component of being able to do that is conditioning, and Dobson seems to have done his job marvelously. There is lots of lean muscle out there, and our big guys do not look like that mass is just hanging off them.

This is where my ramblings end. Maybe some other posters also attended a practice or both. Feel free to weigh in on my observations. Don't be too positive though. I don't want to make this a habit. I prefer being one of the lazy commentariat.