A former quarterback, James Franklin has made no secret since he arrived at Vanderbilt how much he values the position.
In his first two spring practices as head coach, he tried to build competition between his signal callers. This spring, however, might produce the most enthralling quarterback battle yet.
When practices begin Friday, two — possibly three — contenders look to take the job that belonged to Jordan Rodgers, who is now preparing for the NFL.
Senior Austyn Carta-Samuels started one game last year but was a two-year starter at Wyoming before he transferred. Former Maryville standout and redshirt-freshman Patton Robinette should provide the biggest challenge for Carta-Samuels. Sophomore Josh Grady is switching back to quarterback after spending last year at slot receiver and occasionally running out of the wildcat formation. Incoming freshman Johnny McCrary, a four-star prospect from Georgia, enrolled in January and will participate in spring drills, though, he is expected to redshirt.
“We’re starting to create some pretty good depth at the quarterback position,” Franklin said at a press conference Tuesday night. “I think it is going to be an interesting battle. Austyn Carta-Samuels obviously has the edge. He has done it before and experience counts, especially at that position.”
In 2011, Larry Smith had the edge over Rodgers, who was limited in spring drills after undergoing shoulder surgery. Smith later got the starting nod but lost the job halfway through the year to Rodgers.
In 2012, Rodgers was the frontrunner over Carta-Samuels. Though he had been pulled after a dismal start to the Liberty Bowl, Rodgers had a leg up due to experience with Franklin’s system. Carta-Samuels had just enrolled in the fall of 2011. Thus, he had just one semester of practice under his belt.
Rodgers was named the starter prior to last season and had the job every game except one.
Thus, this spring will feature the most balanced competition. Carta-Samuels, the Mountain West Freshman of the Year in 2009, enjoyed success on the college level. Robinette experienced success on the high school level, leading Maryville to a 29-1 record and two state titles as a starter. He gives the Commodores a taller alternative at 6-foot-4 and has been on campus since last January.
“Both of them are real competitive,” left tackle Wesley Johnson said. “I’m excited to see how it all plays out. I’m sure they will all bring their best.”
Then there is Grady, whom Franklin sees as a wildcard. The 6-foot, 190-pounder redshirted the 2011 season and was the third option behind Rodgers and Smith. He switched positions last season and excited the coaches and fans out of the wildcat formation in last year’s spring game. He caught just seven passes for 89 yards and rushed only six times for 23 yards.
He wanted to return to quarterback, where Franklin says he probably has more playmaking ability and athleticism than Carta-Samuels and Robinette but needs to shore up his fundamentals.
“It wouldn’t shock me one bit if that guy is right in the mix of everything,” Franklin said. “The thing that is going to be interesting that he is going to have to decide is if he is the starter, awesome; if not, does it make sense for him to be a backup when he can be on the field helping us somewhere else? That’s a decision he is going to have to make.”
Whoever earns the job will have a tough act to follow after one of the more consistent seasons by a Vanderbilt quarterback.
Last fall, Rodgers completed 59.9 percent of his passes — the best by a Commodore since Jay Cutler — threw for 2,539 yards and tossed 15 touchdowns while throwing just five interceptions. To Franklin, Rodgers’ ability to limit his turnovers last season was more important than getting into the end zone.
His successor is expected to minimize the mistakes.
“The best thing that he did was limit the plays that hurt us,” Franklin said. “That is what we really need. If we can get a guy to do that for us this year as the minimum then we’re excited. But we’re going to have to have a quarterback.”