For the first time since 2015, the Vanderbilt Commodores enter fall camp not knowing who their quarterback will be.
That year, Johnny McCrary beat out Kyle Shurmur for the starting job just before the season opener against Western Kentucky. McCrary mixed poor play with just enough flashes of upside to hang on to the job for six games, until a dreadful performance at South Carolina led to Derek Mason burning Shurmur’s redshirt. Shurmur gained enough of a foothold that McCrary left the program after the season, and that was that.
On the other hand, in 2014 — Derek Mason’s first season at Vanderbilt — the Commodores used three quarterbacks in the season opener and these words were actually written on this blog with a straight face:
(Stephen) Rivers looked like the man for the job on Thursday night...in stretches. He was able to string together three solid drives that showed off his ability to improvise in the pocket, create time for his receivers to get open, and identify opportunities downfield.
Rivers showed on Thursday that he gives this team the best chance to win in its current state.
The best move for Mason right now is to insert Stephen Rivers as the team’s starter
How’d this work out?
So, yeah. We’ve seen Mason handle a quarterback battle about as poorly as humanly possible in 2014, and about as well as could be done under the circumstances in 2015 — and then not have to make a decision for three years. This one will be a test, but the good news is that on paper Vanderbilt has two or three options who should be capable.
The bad news is that this also makes the situation dangerous: there probably is one, and only one, correct answer here, but it’s not immediately obvious. And nobody had emerged as a clear favorite coming out of spring practice. Since odds are pretty good that Vanderbilt does not have more than one quarterback who is capable of being an average or better quarterback in the SEC, Derek Mason has a decision to make.
We just hope the correct decision is made in August, and that we don’t have to deal with the same situation we did in 2014 where the staff never settles on a quarterback.
Riley Neal, redshirt senior: In three-plus years at Ball State (Neal played in three games in 2017 before getting hurt, and got a medical hardship), Riley Neal completed 60 percent of his passes, threw for 7393 yards, 46 touchdowns, and 25 interceptions. To be fair, the MAC isn’t the SEC, and Neal’s numbers in two games against Power 5 competition last season (Notre Dame and Indiana) look pretty pedestrian; on the other hand, those numbers also came while throwing to receivers considerably worse than the ones he’ll have at Vanderbilt.
That Neal wasn’t a clear favorite for the starting job out of spring practice might say something about his adjustment to the SEC, but it might say more about the competition.
Deuce Wallace, redshirt junior: Wallace appears to have worked his way back into the university’s good graces after being suspended last season due to an unspecified violation of university policy. As Kyle Shurmur’s backup in 2017, he got thrown to the wolves in the second half of a blowout loss to Alabama, but did fine in limited action.
Those garbage time snaps in 2017 are the extent of Wallace’s experience at the college level. But some speculation at the end of spring practice suggested that Wallace was the leader in the race. That suggests that the staff may be looking at Wallace as a higher-ceiling option, even if his actual performance is almost completely unknown. We do know that Wallace (and Neal, for that matter) is a running threat in a way that Shurmur was not; so either way, Vanderbilt’s offense will probably look quite a bit different.
The Wild Card
Allan Walters, redshirt freshman: That Walters redshirted in his first year on campus was expected. That he didn’t play a single snap, even with the new redshirt rule, and even with Vanderbilt not having another quarterback on roster other than Shurmur, was a surprise.
Walters was highly-touted as a recruit — he was rated as a four-star before committing to Vanderbilt (at which point he was dropped to a three-star, because of course) — but there’s been relatively little talk of him in the quarterback battle. That could either be a good thing (Wallace and/or Neal is good enough that he’ll have to wait his turn) or a bad thing (he’s actually not that good.) But unless the starter, whoever it is, gets hurt or is ineffective, we may have to wait a while to see what we have here.
A fourth quarterback, true freshman Jamil Muhammad, announces two weeks ago that he would be transferring.