NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Head coach Derek Mason has been a one-quarterback coach since Day 1 of his new tenure at Vanderbilt.
That’s why he and offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell were very particular in their months-long scrutiny and ultimate declaration that sophomore Patton Robinette start on Thursday, with Vanderbilt hosting Temple.
After beating out redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary and graduated senior Stephen Rivers, Robinette was instructed to play loose and lead the team like he did much of last season. That included guiding Vanderbilt to a win at Florida — for the first time since 1945 — and a bowl victory over Houston.
"It’s been a long road since the bowl game," said Robinette, who saw action in 10 games last year as a redshirt freshman backing up starter Austyn Carta-Samuels. "I have had to make a lot of improvements in my game to be in the position I am now. But I am confident that I have done that, and I feel ready to play and execute.
"It was very competitive. You’ve got three guys that can legitimately play Division I football anywhere. … We all pushed each other, and we all got better."
Robinette might have gotten the nod because of playing experience in helping the Commodores to a second-straight nine-win season, including coming off the bench to help pull out wins at Georgia and Tennessee.
McCrary redshirted last year, while Rivers played in only four games in three seasons at LSU (2012).
"With the way the situation played out," Robinette said. "You could have that feeling that, ‘Oh, if I mess up, then somebody is going to come in right behind me.’ But (coach Mason) made it clear that he is going to let me play. I’m not going to be perfect. I am going to make mistakes, hopefully, not too many mistakes. But he made it very clear he was confident in me and my ability to do what he needed me to do."
But it was more than just playing time that earned Robinette the starting spot. He has had to fine-tune skills that were originally better suited to the former read-option attack under departed coach James Franklin than the multi-faceted offensive attack of new coordinator Dorrell.
"Last year, I felt ready to play at the time," the 6-foot-4, 212-pound Robinette said. "But looking back now, I don’t necessarily think I was ready to be an SEC quarterback — kind of skittish in the pocket, didn’t keep my eyes downfield enough, didn’t really work through my progressions very well."
Playing extensively for an injured Carta-Samuels, Robinette completed 46 of 88 passes (52.3 percent) for 642 yards, with four touchdowns and five interceptions. He also rushed for 214 yards and seven touchdowns, including one in each of the last six games.
But that was then, and this is now.
"There (were) times I didn’t deliver the ball to the receiver the way the ball needed to be delivered," Robinette said of last season. "But I have worked hard on that during this offseason. I feel like I have improved in all those areas with coach Dorrell’s help and working on my own. So, I feel ready to go."
When Mason announced last Thursday night to the team that Robinette was the starter, he went directly to his starting quarterback to let him know he was his guy.
After all, Robinette assumes control of an offense that features four of five returning starters on the line and quality depth in the backfield led by junior Brian Kimbrow. But the offense is bereft of playmakers on the outside, especially with the graduation of All-American wide receiver Jordan Matthews.
"Just play loose," Mason said of the first piece of advice he gave Robinette after being named starter. "You can tell he is anxious. He is excited. The one thing that I have always talked to players about — I don’t care if I was coaching offense or defense — there is one thing about the game. Don’t press, just go out and play the game the way it is supposed to be played.
"Let the game come to you. There is going to be adjustments that need to be made. There is going to be calls that you are going to have to make on the fly. Know what? Football is not a mistake-free game. What you have to do is learn from everything that happens to you. As long as we are doing that, I am going to get your best, and you are going to get mine. So, he’s confident."
During his weekly press luncheon, Mason said 20 offensive plays could be scripted by Dorrell, the former UCLA head coach. That is subject to change, depending upon various aspects of the game, including down and distance, and even allowing for Robinette to switch into other plays.
"Most times, coordinators do script their first 15 to 20 plays," said Mason, the previous Stanford defensive coordinator. "You really don’t care what they show you (defensively), because they are going to have to adapt and adjust to whatever you put on the field. That sort of dictates tempo a little bit, just in terms of personnel and formations, adjustments and alignments. The other part, too, is that is not a hard, fast script."
In Temple of the American Athletic Conference, the Commodores face a team coming off a 2-10 record in the first season under coach Matt Rhule. But the Owls have a playmaker in quarterback P.J. Walker, who passed for 2,084 yards and 20 touchdowns as a true freshman, and made progress down the stretch.
Vanderbilt has switched to a 3-4 defensive alignment from the previous 4-3 under new coordinator David Kotulski. Mason said that side of the ball has progressed learning the new defense, but he will know for sure once a game or two is played.
In fact, Mason said as many as 40 players or more could see action on both sides of the ball Thursday night.
"The only way you know where they’re at is to play a game," Mason said. "You can scrimmage all you want to. You can have as many good practices as you want to. For us, proof is in the pudding. I have got to put these guys out there and let these guys do what they do.
" … Get ready to see some guys on the field, many you have seen before, many you haven’t. That’s part of who we are. We have to manufacture depth. We feel like we have 85 scholarship players, and I think we have 85 scholarship players. You should at least be able to see 48 of those guys step out there and play."