With baseball season over, we move on to coverage of the 2021 football season, and we’ll start our position previews with the most important position on the field.
Vanderbilt has spent most of the last two and a half decades seeming to alternate between four-year starters under center and instability at the most important position on the field. Greg Zolman (1998-2001), Jay Cutler (2002-05), and Kyle Shurmur (2015-18) won the starting job as freshmen and never let go (in Shurmur’s case, he won the job about halfway through his freshman season.) But the decade between Cutler and Shurmur was mostly marred with instability: Chris Nickson won the job in 2006, but couldn’t stay healthy and split time with Mackenzi Adams in 2007 and 2008. Larry Smith took over the starting job as a freshman late in the 2008 season, but spent most of the next two years fighting off Adams and Jared Funk for the gig before permanently ceding the job to Jordan Rodgers midway through 2011; Rodgers then started in 2012 before handing things off to Austyn Carta-Samuels in 2013, but Carta-Samuels tore his ACL during the season. And the less said about the quarterback situation in 2014, the better.
After Shurmur graduated in 2018, Derek Mason scrambled to pick up Ball State grad transfer Riley Neal, who I guess technically spent most of the 2019 season as the starter — but, as we found out later, that was because the alternatives were even worse. None of the four quarterbacks who played for Vanderbilt in 2019 returned for 2020, and that left Vanderbilt with an open competition entering the 2020 season.
This is not that. Vanderbilt appears to be back to the stability of having a long-term starter at the position. There are a lot of questions about the team entering the 2021 season, but this isn’t one of them.
Ken Seals, sophomore: Officially, nobody used a year of eligibility in the 2020 season, which made the decision to start Ken Seals for the season opener at Texas A&M a no-brainer: he was the best option at the position, and there was exactly zero concern about exhausting a year of eligibility to play him in what ended up being a lost season. Seals became just the third true freshman to start the season opener for an SEC team when he took the first snap against Texas A&M, joining former Tennessee and Ole Miss signal-caller Brent Schaeffer and current Auburn quarterback Bo Nix, and he ended up starting all nine games.
Under the circumstances, playing behind an offensive line that was decimated by opt-outs and with an extremely iffy running game, Seals’ performance in 2020 was fine. He completed 64.6 percent of his passes and averaged 6.7 yards per attempt, throwing 12 touchdown passes against 10 interceptions. His yards per attempt could stand to improve — that number ranked 9th in the SEC among qualified players — but that came with an offensive line that wasn’t really giving him much time to throw and a coaching staff that only occasionally seemed to trust him to throw the deep ball. The real question here is whether what we saw in 2020 is what we’re going to get going forward, or if there’s upside beyond what we saw last season. Some guys (like, say, Zolman) have fallen into the latter category after winning the starting job as freshmen; others (like Cutler or Shurmur) have really improved beyond what initially won them the job.
Mike Wright, sophomore: Wright was actually ranked higher than Seals as a recruit, but you wouldn’t have guessed that based on what we saw from the two in 2020. As the backup, Wright actually appeared in six games, mostly as a change-of-pace quarterback in the red zone. He attempted 10 passes, completed six of them, and threw a single touchdown pass to go with an interception; meanwhile, he also attempted 14 rushes for 15 yards and a touchdown.
I actually low-key hated the way the coaching staff deployed Wright in red-zone situations last season, not because I didn’t like what he provided or because he wasn’t useful in that role, but more because over the long-term I thought that letting Seals develop was the better play, and it will be interesting to see how new coach Clark Lea handles this.
Jeremy Moussa, senior: Moussa is back for another year as probably an emergency option at quarterback. “Senior” is misleading here because he got a redshirt year for his freshman season at Hawaii in 2018, when he appeared in two games, and could also take advantage of the free year the NCAA provided for 2020, when he didn’t play at all. Anyway, I wouldn’t expect to see Moussa get much action unless disaster strikes.