For the second year in a row, Vanderbilt enters the season with a clear-cut starter at the quarterback position. That wasn’t the case in Derek Mason’s second year — when Johnny McCrary narrowly beat out then-true freshman Kyle Shurmur for the start in the season opener, but ultimately ceded the starting job to Shurmur midway through the season. And it definitely wasn’t the case in 2014, when Patton Robinette got yanked in the Temple game and, uh, the less said about the quarterback play that year, the better.
But 2016 was different. While there were some shenanigans in the season opener against South Carolina (again, the less said, the better), Shurmur asserted enough production that backup Wade Freebeck attempted only 13 passes all season to Shurmur’s 375. Freebeck wound up leaving the team after the season with a year of eligibility remaining; it appears Freebeck didn’t transfer anywhere and instead is attending Owen as a full-time student, ending his football career.
And Shurmur enters 2017 as the only quarterback on the roster who has taken a snap in college. That means Shurmur’s status as starting quarterback is unquestioned, but it’s also a bit scary that the next pass attempt by any other Vanderbilt quarterback will be the first.
Kyle Shurmur, junior: Through about seven games of the 2016 season, Kyle Shurmur was the starter, but he seemed to be barely hanging on to his job. He’d completed 91-of-177 passes (51.4 percent) for 946 yards, an average of 5.3 per attempt. In five games, he had a passer rating below 100, including an ugly 55.6 rating (9-of-25, 82 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT) against Florida. He had tossed just three touchdown passes and been intercepted three times.
But Shurmur was a completely different quarterback over the last five games of the regular season: 94-for-152 (61.8 percent) for 1,305 yards, an average of 8.6 yards per attempt. He threw for an incredible 416 yards against Tennessee in the last game of the regular season. Of course, the bowl performance was subpar, but he was playing hurt in that game.
Coincidentally, the Tennessee State game was Shurmur’s 13th start as a college quarterback, meaning he’d had a full season worth of starts at that point. Granted, some of the improvement was simply better performance from Vanderbilt’s receivers, but Shurmur legitimately was a better quarterback as the calendar rolled to November. Now the challenge is to build on that and keep that performance up for a full season.
Deuce Wallace, redshirt freshman: Deuce Wallace entered as an early enrollee in January 2016 and went through spring practice last year, but didn’t see any game action as a true freshman.
Wallace enters 2017 as the presumptive backup to Shurmur, though it’s not a given that he’ll hold off Shawn Stankavage for that job. One thing Wallace brings to the table that Shurmur doesn’t: a running threat. Shurmur ran 50 times for -129 yards (mostly sacks, probably) in 2016, but Wallace reportedly ran a 4.62 40-yard dash in high school.
While the idea of rotating quarterbacks brings back a lot of bad memories for Vanderbilt fans, it’s not completely out of the question that Wallace will see the field as a change-of-pace quarterback because of his mobility. Of course, that’s something that the coaching staff probably won’t (or at least shouldn’t) experiment with until the Alabama A&M game in Week 2; that seems like the most likely spot for Wallace to see his first action as a college quarterback. Other than that, barring injury to Shurmur, he’ll probably be the backup.
The Insurance Policy
Shawn Stankavage, redshirt junior: Stankavage has been at Vanderbilt for three years and has yet to take a snap. He redshirted as a true freshman in 2014, then missed the last two years due to injuries. Like Wallace, he’s more of a running threat than Shurmur (4.69 40-yard dash in high school, per Hudl), but it’s not clear if he still has that mobility after a couple of knee injuries the last two years.
There were some rumors that earlier in the year that he might be leaving the program along with Freebeck. Those rumors might have been connected to Vanderbilt’s reported pursuit of Missouri graduate transfer Marvin Zanders (who some outlets reported last month was coming to Vanderbilt, though those rumors were unfounded.) Vanderbilt would not have wanted to go into the fall with just three quarterbacks on the roster, and one of those being a true freshman, but Stankavage returning means that at the very least Vanderbilt will have somebody to throw out there in case Shurmur is injured and Wallace is ineffective (or, well, also injured.) But like Wallace, we really don’t have any idea what we’re going to get from Stankavage.
The Likely Redshirt
Jacob Free, freshman: Free signed in February and arrived on campus this summer. It would have been a long shot for him to see game action in 2017 in any case — it’s a big jump from 1A high school football in Alabama to the SEC, after all, and it’s an even bigger jump if you didn’t even go through spring practice first.
At that level, it’s not uncommon to see talented athletes play multiple roles, and that was the case with Free: in addition to throwing for 2,712 yards and 31 touchdowns (and running for nine more) in 12 games, he also served as his team’s punter, averaging more than 40 yards per punt. He also served as a pitcher and shortstop on his high school’s baseball team, and from some reports baseball was his first sport. Now he’s concentrating on football full-time (though you have to be kind of curious if Tim Corbin hasn’t talked to him about suiting up for the Commodore baseball team as well) and will have a full year to learn the offense. It’s highly unlikely that he’ll see the field, though, with three other quarterbacks on the roster.