BEHIND ENEMY LINES
NASHVILLE – Practices are closed. Quarterbacks are splitting snaps with the No. 1 offense but are off-limits for interviews. Information is cryptic, at best.
The same rhetoric being used back in Athens with regard to Georgia’s quarterback competition is being utilized here at Vanderbilt University, where the Commodores also have a closely-contested situation at football’s marquee position. Johnny McCrary, a sophomore from Decatur’s Cedar Grove High School, appears to have a slight edge over Wade Freebeck, a sophomore from Florida.
But that’s based largely on scuttlebutt and speculation. In-house, you’ll get no helpful insights.
“To make it clear, we don’t know who’s going to be the starting quarterback,” Caleb Scott, a sophomore wide receiver from Suwanee, said after Monday morning’s practice at Vandy’s John Rich Practice Complex. “We don’t know who’s going to be starting receiver or anything. Camp’s like everyone’s fresh start. Whoever shows up the most and gets the job done gets that spot.”
Said head coach Derek Mason: “Guys are starting to distance themselves as far as who’s the one, who’s the two. But when we line up against Western Kentucky, you’ll know who our starter is.”
The Commodores, in their second season under Mason, are today’s subject for this week’s “Behind Enemy Lines” series on Georgia’s SEC opponents this season. The Bulldogs face Vanderbilt here at Vanderbilt Stadium in both team’s conference opener on Sept. 12 (3:30 p.m., SEC Network).
Both teams ought to know who their primary quarterback is going to be by then. In the meantime, quarterback suddenly might not be Vanderbilt’s biggest issue.
It’s been a rough couple of weeks here in Commodore Country. First, they lost starting wide receiver C.J. Duncan to a season-ending injury on Sept. 12. The sophomore, who was second on the team with 441 receiving yards and four touchdowns last season, ruptured his Achilles tendon returning a kickoff at practice.
Then last week, starting left tackle Andrew Jelks, suffered a torn ACL while blocking in practice. That has caused a major shuffle along the offensive line, which previously looked solid with four starters returning. Anyone from right tackle Will Holden to left guard Jake Bernstein to center Spencer Pulley is being looked at to fill in.
“That’s football,” Mason said. “That’s the landscape. It is next man up. Everybody has to deal with injuries. We have a roster that hopefully will bolster an opportunity for the next guy to step in. It’s a long season and that’s why you have a depth chart. But a depth chart is a comma, not a period, and that things going to be fluid.”
Critical injuries to key players are the last thing the Commodores and Mason need. This is a school that limits walkons and traditionally does not recruit the depth of talent that does some of its SEC brethren. So losing front-line talent is particularly problematic.
And this is a program that is desperately seeking some positive vibes after Mason’s disastrous debut last season. The Commodores opened the season with an unflattering 37-7 loss to Temple and it went downhill from there. Vandy limped home with a 3-9 record, was winless in the SEC and lost four conference games by 24 or more points, including its 44-17 loss at Georgia.
But Mason did anything but stand pat. He scored what everybody believes to be a significant upgrade by landing former Wisconsin offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig to oversee that side of the ball. He also hired James Dobson from Nebraska to revamp the strength and conditioning program.
Meanwhile, Mason once again grabbed the keys to the defense. In addition to his head coaching duties, he’ll be making the defensive calls this year, as he did to great effect for three seasons at Stanford before coming to Nashville.
“I saw (a big difference) at our first scrimmage when he was calling the defense,” said Nigel Bowden, an inside linebacker from Macon who led the Commodores in tackles as a freshman with 78. “It was so much of a faster pace. We knew exactly where we were going and the defense we were running was so much simpler. The chemistry and the communication was better and kept going as the scrimmage went. It’s really exciting to see how much energy he brings to our defense.”
Offense is the area in which Vanderbilt needs to show the most improvement, however. The Commodores averaged a league-worst 17.2 points per game last season. The league leaders were averaging more than twice that.
As ever, that starts and ends with the signal-callers. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound McCrary is the most experienced of the quarterbacks. He started the final five games of last season and completed 51.3 percent of his passes for 985 yards with nine TDs and eight interceptions.
“Johnny’s talented, but it takes more than talent to play in this conference, especially when you’re talking about quarterback,” Mason said Monday. “Johnny possesses all the tools. He’s got height, he’s got athleticism, he’s got a strong arm. He’s really started to command this offense. But so has Wade.”
The 6-5, 226-pound Freebeck, from the storied St. Thomas Aquinas program in Ft. Lauderdale, is one of four quarterbacks that played for the Commodores last season. He’s known for having a great arm, but threw five interceptions last season with just one touchdown.
True freshman Kyle Shurmur also has been getting some looks but, 10 days from the opener, his reps have seen a sharp decrease recently.
“They’ve all got different arms,” said Scott, son of Vanderbilt great Chuck Scott. “Wade’s got that cannon. Johnny’s is a different ball to catch. … I’m glad I don’t have to make the decision because it’s a battle every day between those two.”
And that, Scott insists, ain’t no rhetoric.