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Wade Freebeck and the Dilemma of the Experienced Backup Quarterback

You know what’s worse than Derek Mason’s quarterback management? Not having a viable backup.

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NCAA Football: Austin Peay at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Oh, we’ve heard the reasons. I guess you could call them reasons.

"I thought (quarterback Kyle Shurmur) had rhythm on the touchdown drive. But that was a situation where me and (offensive coordinator) Andy (Ludwig) had talked about it."

That was Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason “explaining” why he inserted backup quarterback Wade Freebeck in the third drive of the South Carolina game. And then last week, when Mason said that Freebeck was going to be the “situational quarterback” in advance of the Middle Tennessee game. What situation it was, I don’t know. Freebeck didn’t take a snap in the Middle Tennessee game, so we can only assume that the situation didn’t come up. (Strangely, Mason didn’t put him in the game in the fourth quarter with a sixteen-point lead. That seems like... well, that seems like a better place to put in your backup quarterback than the second quarter of a ten-point game.)

Exactly why Mason won’t come out and say it, we’ll never know. But the whole point behind all of this is simple: Vanderbilt needs a backup quarterback.

More importantly, Vanderbilt needs a backup quarterback in 2017. Mason doesn’t need to get Wade Freebeck snaps in a game so that he’ll be ready if needed this season; that’s what practice is for. But from best that I can tell, Mason — without saying it — is admitting that he’s worried that Freebeck will leave the program if he doesn’t get playing time. And he’s probably correct to worry about that.

Being a backup quarterback is a difficult job. At most positions on the field, players rotate in and out of the game depending on the situation. For instance, in addition to the two starting wide receivers, five other players at that position saw the field in Saturday’s game. By my count, six defensive linemen saw the field. Obviously some guys are just appearing on special teams plays, but it’s hardly unusual for the backup quarterback (and the third-string quarterback) to never get off the sidelines.

And even more frustrating in college football is being the backup quarterback to a guy who has more eligibility left than you do. Deuce Wallace, the third-string quarterback, probably won’t play this season (and might not play next season, either), but at least he’ll still have two more years of eligibility left when Kyle Shurmur graduates. Maybe more than that on the off chance that Shurmur leaves early. But Freebeck? He’s a junior. Shurmur’s a sophomore. Unless Shurmur gets hurt, or gets benched due to ineffectiveness, Freebeck is probably never going to start again at Vanderbilt.

And yet Derek Mason would like to keep him around for another year, because while Wallace has potential (and so does Jacob Free, who’s coming into the program next year), does Mason want to risk having to throw either into the fire next year? And there probably won’t be another option if Mason wants to have an experienced, capable backup. Yes, there are graduate transfers, but most of those guys (at least, the ones you would actually want on the roster) aren’t going to transfer to Vanderbilt so that they can be Kyle Shurmur’s backup. Jucos aren’t normally an option at Vanderbilt — there are rare exceptions, like Jordan Rodgers, who was at a juco for reasons that had nothing to do with academics. The only real option if Vanderbilt is going to have an experienced backup in 2017 is probably going to be Freebeck.

All of this certainly isn’t an unusual problem. When a freshman takes the starting quarterback job, as Shurmur did in 2015, frequently the upperclassmen at the position will leave as they realize that their chances of starting in the program are extremely low; at that point, your only chance of starting again is if the young quarterback gets hurt or struggles to the point that the coaches lose confidence in him. And it also gets harder to recruit quarterbacks for the future. In the mid-2000s, Texas had to live with a walk-on backing up Vince Young because nobody wanted to come in and sit behind him for a few years. Vanderbilt already lost Johnny McCrary to transfer, and it’s reasonable to think that Mason doesn’t want to lose Freebeck as well.

None of this is written as a defense of Mason’s handling of the quarterbacks. But it is to acknowledge that there are legitimate reasons why the coaching staff would want to find playing time for Freebeck where they can, even if the manner they’ve gone about it has been extremely poor. It really just comes down to wanting, needing to have a viable backup quarterback. Vanderbilt might be fine without one if Kyle Shurmur remains healthy and effective, but that’s simply not a gamble that we want to take.