HOOVER, Ala. — Vanderbilt football coach Derek Mason will not only avoid announcing a starting quarterback until the season opener, but he’s also labeling it a six-player race.
That declaration came from the first-year Commodores coach during SEC Media Days when asked who would replace graduated starter Austyn Carta-Samuels. But whomever it is among six candidates, it will be his job not to share, but to keep as long as he’s producing.
"When I look at naming a quarterback, I’m not going to be pressed into naming a quarterback," Mason said. "I think what we’ll do is we’ll go through the process. We have plenty of evaluation time to make the right decision."
The leader in the clubhouse is sophomore Patton Robinette, the only quarterback on the roster with any extensive playing experience. In last year’s 9-4 season, the redshirt freshman played in 10 games, including winning starts at Florida and against Houston in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
"Anytime you have a young man who has played in games, it’s something that you can’t replicate," Mason said. "For us, I think Robinette has the leg up. But what I wanted was a quarterback competition. We need to make sure that if we’re going to be successful, we have to solidify the quarterback position overall."
Robinette has the size (6-foot-4, 210 pounds) and experience, also leading the Commodores to a come-from-behind win over nationally-ranked Georgia in a reserve role last year. Vanderbilt’s win at Florida was the first there since the 1940s, and Robinette scored the winning touchdown to give the Commodores consecutive wins over rival Tennessee for the first time since the 1920s.
But Robinette was recruited more as a dual-threat quarterback for the offense of former Commodores coach James Franklin and might not fit the West Coast stylings of new offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell, the former UCLA coach.
"I love the way he competes. I love his swagger in terms of how he talks to our guys, how he leads," Mason said of Robinette, who completed 46 of 88 passes (52.3 percent) for 642 yards to go with 206 rushing yards in 2013. "But for us to be successful, we need a guy who can do it game in, game out, OK, with very little hitches, very few flaws."
Redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary might be a better fit for the new offense. He’s also got the size (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) and is a better passer than Robinette, but his lack of experience is significant. At Cedar Grove High School in Decatur, Ga., McCrary passed for 9,025 career yards, the most in DeKalb County high school history.
Also in the mix is graduated senior Stephen Rivers, who transferred from LSU after playing four games in three seasons. The last two years, the younger brother of Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers was backup to Tigers standout quarterback Zach Mettenberger, a sixth-round draft pick of the Titans.
"It’s great to already have experience at the quarterback position," Commodores junior tight end Stephen Scheu said. "A lot of guys can get flustered their first couple of games, because there is so much emphasis on what the quarterback is doing. Whether it’s Patton or anybody else, we have a lot of depth at quarterback, which we haven’t had in the past. That gives us a lot of confidence going into the season."
Junior Josh Grady was moved to quarterback from wide receiver in spring drills before last season and played in three games before a midseason injury sidelined him for the season, but he’s on the smallish side (6-foot). As a redshirt freshman in 2012, Grady played in all 13 games as the team’s fourth wide receiver.
Mason signed two quarterbacks — Wade Freeback out of St. Thomas Aquinas (Davie, Fla.) and Shawn Stankavage out of Cardinal Gibbons (Durham, N.C.) — in February as part of his first Vanderbilt recruiting class. Freeback is bigger (6-foot-5, 212 pounds) than his fellow true freshman quarterback with a strong arm that produced 3,476 yards and 33 touchdowns the past two seasons. Stankavage has the pedigree as son of former North Carolina and Denver Broncos quarterback Scott Stankavage. He passed for 3,564 yards and 34 TDs last season.
"You ask, ‘How do you get six quarterbacks ready?’ You don’t," Mason said. "You create competitive situations where those guys rise out front and you start to look at where we’re at."
Mason did say that he is a one-quarterback coach and not in favor of a two-quarterback system.
"I do want to name a starter," Mason said. "For what we’re doing and how we want to do it, a two-quarterback system is not the way I want to go. I believe there should be a starter and there should be a guy behind him to watch and learn and understand the situation. Where the situation arises where he needs to play, he’ll be ready. I feel confident in that."