Quarterback question confronts Commodores this week

Monday, October 10, 2011 at 7:22pm

Quarterback Jordan Rodgers could make his first Division I start on Saturday against visiting Georgia. Or he could be Larry Smith's backup again.

At his weekly press conference on Monday, Vanderbilt coach James Franklin didn’t announce Rodgers as his starter. At the same time, though, he didn’t exactly shut the door on a quarterback controversy.

“We are going to determine that this week, have a competition and kind of see,” Franklin said. “Nothing has really changed where we’re at with that position based on anywhere else in the season.”

Rodgers replaced Larry Smith, a three-year starter, with 1:45 left in the first quarter and played the rest of the way in last Saturday's 34-0 loss at Alabama.

Smith exited after he was hit on a quarterback draw. Soon after, trainers wrapped his left ankle and he jogged gingerly behind the team bench. Eventually, he headed to the locker room moments before halftime.

Smith was on the sidelines throughout the second half but didn’t go back in the game.

On Monday, Franklin would not specify the severity of Smith’s injury, saying, “Health always factors into every single position.”

Smith, a fifth-year senior, has been banged up in each of the Commodores' five contests. He was 4-of-6 for 45 yards against Alabama and has completed 58.1 percent of his passes for 457 yards with three touchdowns and three interceptions.

Rodgers was listed as an "or" option at first-team quarterback on Vanderbilt’s depth chart after completing 11-of-18 passes for 104 yards against the Crimson Tide. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound junior twice led the Commodores (3-2, 1-2 SEC) into Tide territory in the first half, marching them to the 21-yard line before Carey Spear missed a 38-yard field goal. In the second half, however, he tossed the first two interceptions of his Vanderbilt career, had just 32 passing yards and failed to lead Vanderbilt into the red zone.

“I thought he played extremely well enough in the first half,” Franklin said. “I don’t think he played as well he would have liked to play or we would have liked him to play in the second half. It was two completely different halves.”

A junior-college transfer from California, Rodgers sat out last year due to a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery and limited his participation in spring practices. He has played in all five games, completing 62.5 percent (20-of-32) of his passes for 189 yards and one touchdown, which came on his first pass of the season.

“Both quarterbacks know the offense and do a good job leading,” tight end Brandon Barden said. “You just keep playing. You keep doing your job, you let the ball get in their hands and then they make plays.”

• Third-down woes: All season, the offense has struggled to stay on the field and extend drives. Against Alabama, the defense couldn’t get off it quickly enough.

Vanderbilt's offense ranks last in the Football Bowl Subdivision in third-down percentage, 18.6 percent (12-of-65). It was even worse last weekend when it went 1-for-10.

Moving the chains again will be an area of emphasis Saturday against a Georgia defense that ranks fourth in the country in that category. Opponents have converted just 26.2 percent of those opportunities against the Bulldogs.

The Vanderbilt defense was sixth (34.4 percent) in the SEC entering last weekend. Alabama, however, had its way and was 12-of-17 on third-down chances.

All five Tide touchdowns came on third down — a pair of third-and-threes and third-and-sevens as well as one third-and-goal at the 1-yard line. Vanderbilt also lost the time-of-possession battle, 36:14 to 23:46.

“We weren’t on the field too long,” linebacker Archibald Barnes. “I just feel like they made a couple tough plays and they outworked us a little on third down. But we’ll be sure to get that fixed. That’s something we’ll work harder at this week to eliminate.”

• O-line progress: For the first time all season, the offensive line didn’t allow a sack, and Alabama hurried the quarterback just once.

That unit has allowed 16 sacks this season, including six against South Carolina in Vanderbilt’s previous game.

“That is always a good sign but we are not looking at it as a unit or individual,” lineman Kyle Fischer said. “We are looking at is a whole team wise. So offensively we didn’t perform as well as we needed to.”

Vanderbilt finished with just 190 yards against Alabama and has been without a touchdown in its last nine quarters. Since scorching Ole Miss for 281 rushing yards, the Commodores have netted just 45 yards on the ground, including just four against South Carolina.

“It comes down to execution,” Fischer said. “I can’t really say who the blame is on. The blame is on nobody — it is everybody offensively.”

Franklin said the offensive line received a big boost by having center Logan Stewart back in the starting lineup after he missed most of preseason camp due to mononucleosis. That moved Wesley Johnson to left tackle and Ryan Seymour to left guard. The right side stayed the same with Mylon Brown at guard and Fischer at tackle.

Franklin said Brown got the nod to start over Josh Jelesky, who has been practicing with the offense since early August when he moved over from the defensive line. Brown has started all five games but Franklin said a similar “competition” will be held this week.

“Mylon won the job last week but we are going to continue to keep trying to create as competitive environment as we possibly can at that position,” Franklin said.

• Scouting Georgia: The Bulldogs (4-2, 3-1) enter Saturday’s 6 p.m. matchup (Fox Sports South) riding a four-game winning streak and tied with South Carolina atop the SEC East.

Georgia is led by sophomore quarterback Aaron Murray, who ranks third in the league in passing. He has thrown for 1,327 yards with 13 touchdowns and six interceptions. His top target, Malcolm Mitchell, will not play due to a hamstring injury. The freshman has 25 catches for 438 yards.

Georgia ranks third in the league in total defense, rushing defense and passing defense.

The Bulldogs’ success starts up front. Franklin said the defensive line of the 3-4 defense weighs an average of 321 pounds. Free safety Bacarri Rambo has four interceptions, tying him with five others including Vanderbilt’s Casey Hayward, for second in the country.

Vanderbilt, which lost 43-0 to Georgia last year, begins a three-game homestand.

• Game time: The Commodores’ Oct. 22 matchup against Army will start at 6 p.m. on ESPNU, the SEC office announced Monday.