If Johnny McCrary wins the starting quarterback job for the Vanderbilt Commodores, he's set for a significant improvement behind center. Could 2015 be the season that the former Army All-American realizes his potential as a leader?
The early returns on McCrary's Vanderbilt career have yet to inspire. The big-armed quarterback came to Nashville as one of the biggest recruits in school history but redshirt in 2013 thanks to the presence of Austyn Carta-Samuels and Patton Robinette on the depth chart. He was given the chance to beat out Robinette and
fragile space alien NFL bloodliner Stephen Rivers for snaps last year, but his inability to stand out helped lead to a season where the Commodores had more starting quarterbacks (four) than wins (three).
So why is JMC primed for a big leap forward in '15?
McCrary had the biggest arm on the Vanderbilt roster last season, but he had few reliable options downfield in 2014. He struggled to learn the playbook and identify his openings, but he was operating under a new (and ineffective) offensive coordinator in Karl Dorrell. He was pressured behind an offensive line that struggled to come together as a unit. This fall, all three aspects of this offense will be better.
Vanderbilt upgraded their offense this winter, either by bringing in new talent or gaining an extra year of seasoning for a young roster. C.J. Duncan, Latevius Rayford, and Caleb Scott are all a year older. Steven Scheu, Kris Kentera, and an emerging DeAndre Woods will provide the Commodores with three big targets who can get the ball into the endzone. Every member of the offensive line, save Joe Townsend, is back for 2015 along with carry-eating tailback Ralph Webb. Most importantly, Dorrell has been replaced by Andy Ludwig - a coordinator who's had proven success at BCS programs.
That won't exactly stack the deck in McCrary's favor, but it will certainly give him more to work with this fall. Only one of McCrary's top seven receivers - as defined by the guys he targeted the most in the games where he threw the majority of the passes - is gone this fall. While Davis Dudchock was a significant weapon for the young quarterback, Woods appears ready to give this team an athletic, defense-stretching tight end up the seams.
|Johnny McCrary's 2014 Targets as Primary Passer
Still, questions remain. Vanderbilt heads into 2015 without a dedicated #1 wide receiver and, aside from Scheu, they lack the kind of playmaker that can bail out his quarterback and strike fear into the hearts of defensive coordinators. The two most successful Commodore passers since Jay Cutler (Jordan Rodgers, Austyn Carta-Samuels) were successful because they had three NFL receivers - Jordan Matthews, Chris Boyd, and Jonathan Krause - acting as ball-magnets downfield. Rayford and Duncan aren't there yet.
And Ludwig, despite a solid reputation, spent his last two years directing a Wisconsin offense where the quarterback was often a decorative piece next to All-Conference tailbacks like James White and Melvin Gordon. He failed to develop guys like Joel Stave or Tanner McEvoy into prolific passers or, if we're talking 2014, average ones. His recent history with quarterback battles doesn't inspire confidence.
Despite those uncertainties, it's clear that this Commodore offense will be better this fall. The skeptic can look at last year's results and point out that there's hardly any room to get worse. A more reasonable analysis will look at Vanderbilt's returning talent and see how it fits into Ludwig's philosophy. That's where the Commodores' QBs are primed for major strides forward.
McCrary still has to win the #1 spot on the Commodore depth chart. Getting there will require him to fend off two highly-regarded young quarterbacks, Wade Freebeck and Kyle Shurmur. But, if he can claim the most important position on the field, the table is set for a big step forward - and even a breakout year - now that year two of the Derek Mason era has begun to settle over Nashville.