Vanderbilt struggled mightily in its first season of the post-James Franklin era, following its back-to-back nine-win stretch from 2012-13 with a dismal 3-9 (0-8 SEC) mark under former Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason’s watch in 2014.
Poor quarterback play was one of the many reasons for the lack of competitiveness in an always vigorous conference; four different Commodore gunslingers started games, combining to complete 50.4 percent of their passes for 6.02 yards per attempt – a stat that ranked them 111th in the country – with 13 touchdowns and 19 interceptions.
If there was an ounce of hope for stability at the position and a promising outlook on growth, it was with 6-foot-4, 215-pound sophomore quarterback Patton Robinette, who provided the offense some structure – and confidence – at times. Unfortunately, a concussion and lingering knee issues allowed him to start just two games (he played in six), as he finished the year with 454 passing yards, three touchdowns, three interceptions and a solid 49.9 QBR.
You could have called him the best of the worst – no Vanderbilt quarterback even qualified for a Passer Efficiency Rating in terms of SEC rankings – but Robinette was undoubtedly Mason’s best option heading into April. Adam Sparks of The Tennessean described him as new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s favorite during spring practice:
“Ludwig wants an accurate passer and some mobility in his QB. Neither Mason nor Ludwig confirmed that Patton Robinette would be the starter, but it was apparent by spring’s end that he was the No. 1 guy,” said Sparks, via Athlon Sports. “Ludwig likes Robinette’s football IQ, his quick understanding of the offense, his accuracy on short to intermediate passes and his running ability. Robinette has struggled throwing the deep ball, which Ludwig highlighted as a flaw that needs to be fixed before the regular season.”
Those words, along with everything else discussed above, have become irrelevant; Robinette decided to hang up the cleats for good last Friday, citing his history of injuries, and plans to join the school’s School of Medicine.
“I’ve been very deliberate in coming to this decision,” said Robinette. “It’s difficult but I’m really excited to move forward to the next chapter of my life and really to see what the field of medicine has in store for me.”
A bleak situation just became downright depressing.
— Vanderbilt Football (@VandyFootball) March 27, 2015
With this news, the stress of finding a quarterback to keep under center for more than two quarters at a time was dumped back onto Mason’s lap like a scolding hot cup of coffee while driving to work on a Monday morning. Instead of a possible decision that could have come in the next few weeks (or days, even), a three-way battle between sophomore Johnny McCrary – who received the most playing time in 2014, posting a 47.2 completion percentage, four touchdowns and eight interceptions against teams not named Old Dominion – sophomore Wade Freebeck, and incoming freshman Kyle Shurmur will likely enter the latter days of August.
And it’s not like the winner will be handed the keys to a well-oiled scoring machine. Vanderbilt has some major concerns with depth at offensive skill positions, lacking players that have shown the capability to create plays with their athleticism – an asset that would help a young quarterback to develop confidence and become less pressured to do more on his own. The ‘Dores owned the 119th-ranked scoring offense in 2014 (17.2 ppg), and right now the feeling is that those numbers will prove to be difficult to improve upon in 2015.
It wouldn’t be an impossible feat for Vanderbilt to return to the postseason as it did so proudly three times during James Franklin’s tenure, but doing so would likely put Mason and the entire coaching staff on Coach of the Year watch.