SEC: Johnny McCrary

SEC Quarterback Tracker: Week 3

September, 17, 2014
Sep 17
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The SEC quarterback competitions are fading fast. Nick Marshall is back for Auburn. Patrick Towles (Kentucky) and Justin Worley (Tennessee) have exceeded expectations. And Kenny Hill has gone from competing for the starting job to competing for the Heisman Trophy.

That leaves Alabama, LSU and Vanderbilt. All three schools seem to have settled on a signal caller for the time being, but how long will it last? We should find out a lot more this Saturday as they all have SEC opponents on the docket.

Alabama
Starter: Blake Sims
Backup: Jake Coker

How Sims performed: Alabama fans are starting to accept that Sims is the team’s quarterback and why not? The senior hasn’t done anything to relinquish the job. If anything, he’s shown improvement with each game. On Saturday against Southern Miss, he completed 12 of his 17 passes for 168 yards and a touchdown and also rushed for 46 yards and a score. Both Coker and Alec Morris came in during the second half, but neither played meaningful minutes.

What it means: Sims is the starting quarterback until he gives up the job. If he keeps managing the offense and not turning over the football, the coaches are not going to pull him. That said, he faces his toughest test this Saturday against Florida. The Gators return all four starters on the defensive line, and with Vernon Hargreaves III at cornerback, Sims can no longer only throw the ball to his favorite receiver Amari Cooper. Will we see Coker? Not unless things go awry, but Sims has to play well for Alabama to win. – Greg Ostendorf

Sims’ hold on position: 8.5

LSU
Starter: Anthony Jennings
Backup: Brandon Harris

How Jennings performed: Although Jennings (11-for-18 for 139 yards, INT) tossed his first interception of the season in last Saturday’s 31-0 win against Louisiana-Monroe, he continues to do a solid if unspectacular job at quarterback. His passing numbers would have been better if not for a series of drops and he’s minimizing his mistakes. He also showed some nifty moves in escaping from a sack and then ran for a 22-yard gain. To this point, he has been what LSU’s coaches want him to be: A steady game manager.

What it means: The ULM game made it even more evident that Jennings holds a clear lead over Harris as the starter. Jennings played every offensive snap until the Tigers led 24-0 late in the third quarter. Once Harris got into the game, he screwed up at least two play calls and had to scramble for yardage once everyone else ran a different direction than he expected. Until he has a firm grasp on the playbook, Harris won’t truly challenge for the starting job. – David Ching

Jennings’ hold on position: 8

Vanderbilt
Starter: Patton Robinette
Backup: Wade Freebeck, Stephen Rivers, Johnny McCrary

How Robinette performed: Exploring all options to find a quarterback, Derek Mason went with the true freshman Freebeck against UMass. That experiment lasted all of a quarter before Mason pulled him in favor of Robinette, the team’s original starter. The sophomore took advantage. In three quarters, Robinette threw for 147 yards, rushed for 35 yards and scored two touchdowns to lead the Commodores back from an 11-point second-half deficit and notch their first win of the season.

What it means: Has Vanderbilt finally settled on a quarterback? Don’t assume anything with Mason calling the shots, but he did say Tuesday that Robinette is their guy until something happens to change that. It sounds like Robinette will have a longer leash this Saturday against South Carolina, and maybe that will give him a little added confidence. It also wouldn’t be surprising if a different quarterback finished the game. – Greg Ostendorf

Robinette’s hold on position: 4

SEC Quarterback Tracker: Week 2

September, 10, 2014
Sep 10
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After Week 2, the quarterback battles in the SEC seem to be dwindling. Nick Marshall returned as the starter for Auburn while it looks like both Kentucky and Tennessee have found their man. The same can’t be said just yet at Alabama and LSU, and nobody knows what’s going on at Vanderbilt. The SEC quarterback tracker is back. Have a look.

Alabama
Starter: Blake Sims
Backup: Jake Coker

How Sims performed: Sims continues to do what coach Nick Saban and his staff value most: manage the offense. It might not be flashy, but Sims has taken what the defense has given him time and time again. Relying on mostly short, quick passes, Sims threw for 228 yards and two touchdowns on 12 of 14 passing against Florida Atlantic. He also ran in a touchdown from 7 yards out.

What it means: Sims has done nothing to lose the starting job, but it's still what he hasn't done -- throw the football deep -- that's most troubling. Coker, on the other hand, can do that. In fact, he seemed intent on chucking it deep in his first real action under center for the Crimson Tide. Coker was 15 of 24 for 202 yards and a touchdown against FAU. But it was what he couldn't do -- manage the offense, minimize mistakes -- that is keeping him from truly challenging Sims. – Alex Scarborough

Sims’ hold on position: 8

Auburn
Starter: Nick Marshall
Backup: Jeremy Johnson

How Marshall performed: After missing the first half in the opener, Marshall returned as the starter in Week 2 and played well. He threw for over 100 yards, rushed for over 100 yards and scored twice. A solid effort, but by no means was it perfect. He completed just 10 of his 19 pass attempts, and he fumbled on the opening drive. With that said, the Auburn offense still racked up over 400 yards through three quarters with Marshall under center.

What it means: The big takeaway from Saturday was that Johnson didn’t see the field until the fourth quarter with the Tigers already ahead 45-13. That’s not the “role” we all envisioned for Johnson after Week 1. I believe it was Gus Malzahn’s way of re-enforcing the fact that Marshall is this team’s quarterback. If there was any doubt at all after the Arkansas game, he wanted to make it crystal clear on Saturday. – Greg Ostendorf

Marshall’s hold on position: 10

Kentucky
Starter: Patrick Towles
Backup: Drew Barker and Reese Phillips

How Towles performed: After passing for 377 yards in the opener, Towles did his damage on the ground in a 20-3 win against Ohio. Towles had 22 rushing attempts (five of which were sacks) for 59 yards, with six runs covering 10 yards or more. He also went 17-for-31 for 170 yards and tossed an 8-yard touchdown pass to Dorian Baker for the Wildcats’ first score. If there was anything to criticize, it’s that the Wildcats’ offense bogged down after jumping out to a 17-0 lead.

What it means: It was another impressive, and turnover-free, start from Towles, who won the starting job during preseason camp. He’s about to face an enormous step up in competition, however. Saturday’s visit to Florida, which allowed just 125 yards in its season-opening 65-0 win over Eastern Michigan, is going to be one of the toughest tests of the season for Kentucky’s reconstructed offense. If Towles can stay composed and move the offense against the Gators, Kentucky will truly have something to get excited about. – David Ching

Towles’ hold on position: 9

LSU
Starter: Anthony Jennings
Backup: Brandon Harris

How Jennings performed: Jennings took the majority of snaps in a 56-0 rout of Sam Houston State and connected with Travin Dural for three touchdown passes -- including a 94-yard score on LSU’s first play from scrimmage. Jennings also ran eight times for 43 yards and played by far his most efficient game yet out of three college starts. It was another step in the right direction after a solid second half in the Tigers’ comeback win against Wisconsin in the opener.

What it means: We saw Harris (4-5, 62 yards, TD) get his first substantial playing time against SHSU, too, and the freshman made a couple of huge plays -- most notably a 46-yard touchdown run. LSU coach Les Miles was critical of the freshman’s fourth-quarter fumble, but it was overall a strong home debut for Harris. He’s probably not ready to push Jennings for the starting job yet, but we’re going to see a lot more from the freshman as the season progresses. – David Ching

Jennings’ hold on position: 6

Tennessee
Starter: Justin Worley
Backup: Joshua Dobbs and Nathan Peterman

How Worley performed: It was another impressive performance from Worley. He completed nine straight passes to start the game and finished 22 of 38 for 247 yards and two touchdowns. He even rushed for a third score. The only negative came in the third quarter when Arkansas State defensive back Money Hunter, son of Detroit Tigers outfielder Torii Hunter, dove in front of one of Worley’s passes and intercepted it.

What it means: Through the first two games, Worley is looking like the most improved player in the SEC. The two touchdown throws to Marquez North on Saturday were not easy throws, and he put them on the money. The senior quarterback will have to play a nearly flawless game this weekend if the Volunteers hope to upset Oklahoma on the road, but win or lose, Worley is still the guy for Tennessee. – Greg Ostendorf

Worley’s hold on position: 9

Texas A&M
Starter: Kenny Hill
Backup: Kyle Allen

How Hill performed: Hill wasn't quite as accurate in his second game (17-of-26) as he was in his debut (44-of-60) but still performed well, throwing for 283 yards and four touchdowns with zero interceptions. Offensive coordinator Jake Spavital said he wants to see Hill improve on his intermediate and deep-pass accuracy and the Aggies took more shots downfield in their win over Lamar than they did in their season opener vs. South Carolina. Allen got some work in both the first and second half once the Aggies had a big lead.

What it means: Spavital called the game in such a way to work on some areas where Hill isn't as strong and by doing that, Hill was out of his comfort zone a little, but he handled it well overall and turned in a strong performance. A game against an FCS opponent was an opportune time to get a live look at how Allen would perform. He had some freshman moments, like throwing an interception on his first drive, but bounced back well. Still, Hill did just fine and while Allen is not backing down, Hill is the starter. – Sam Khan

Hill’s hold on position: 10

Vanderbilt
Starter: TBD
Options: Wade Freebeck, Johnny McCrary, Stephen Rivers, Patton Robinette

How Rivers performed: Rivers got the nod last week but the performance wasn't pretty. He was 6-of-25 passing for 60 yards and no touchdowns in a 41-3 loss to Ole Miss. Head coach Derek Mason noted that "we should have done a better job of using those guys' skill sets and getting the ball in playmakers' hands," and said that they've made schematic changes as a result. It is worth noting that Mason stuck with Rivers for the entire game Saturday rather than playing musical chairs with the quarterbacks, as he did in the season-opening loss to Temple.

What it means: The Commodores still don't have a starter at the moment, as Mason referenced the quarterbacks will compete for the right to start this week. Now, there's a fourth name in the mix in addition to Rivers, Robinette and McCrary -- Freebeck, the true freshman from Florida. Mason said he's very much in the competition this week. Who starts this weekend against Massachusetts is anyone's guess. For what it's worth, Mason promised "explosive offense." We'll see. – Sam Khan

Rivers’ hold on the position: 0

SEC Quarterback Tracker: Week 1

September, 3, 2014
Sep 3
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Week 1 is in the books, and the big storyline in the SEC was quarterback play. There were some who took the starting job and ran with it, and there were others who struggled at times, opening the door for the backup. As the second weekend approaches, here’s the latest on all the SEC quarterback battles and where each team stands.

Alabama
Starter: Blake Sims
Backup: Jake Coker
How Sims performed: Nick Saban couldn’t have asked for more from Sims, who stayed out of trouble and got the ball to his playmakers in space. Completing 72.7 percent of his passes was better than anyone expected, but he did turn the ball over once on an interception and missed a handful of open receivers. He’ll need to work on that and getting the ball downfield more effectively, but for a first start he played quite well.
What it means: If it wasn’t before, it’s now Sims’ job to lose. Though he might not be an electric passer that strikes fear into a defense, he does bring some nice tools to the table, especially his escapability. But until we see Coker actually attempt a pass, nothing is settled. We’ll get that chance on Saturday when Alabama hosts Florida Atlantic in Tuscaloosa. If Sims continues to play well, he shouldn’t be in trouble. If he struggles some and Coker looks solid, we could be in for a race. – Alex Scarborough
Sims’ hold on position: 6.5

Auburn
Starter: Nick Marshall
Backup: Jeremy Johnson
How Johnson performed: Marshall’s suspension stemming from an incident this offseason gave Johnson an opportunity to start the season opener, and he took full advantage of it. The sophomore, listed No. 2 on the depth chart, played the first half and went 12 of 16 for 243 yards and two touchdowns. Marshall returned in the second half and re-energized the Tigers, but statistically, it was clear that Johnson had the better day.
What it means: Maybe nothing. Maybe a whole lot. After the game, Gus Malzahn said that while Johnson will certainly have a role this season, Marshall is still the team’s quarterback. So expect Marshall to return to the starting lineup this weekend against San Jose State and for the foreseeable future. Don’t be surprised if fans start calling for Johnson if Marshall slips up down the road against a Kansas State or an LSU, though. It’s not a bad problem to have, but the last thing the coaches want is a controversy. – Greg Ostendorf
Marshall’s hold on position: 9

Kentucky
Starter: Patrick Towles
Backup: Drew Barker or Reese Phillips
How Towles performed: After winning the job during preseason practice, Towles got off to an outstanding start against overmatched UT-Martin. He completed 15 of 22 passes for 263 yards and a touchdown in the first half as the Wildcats went up 35-0. Towles turned it over to Phillips in the fourth quarter, finishing the day with a line of 20-for-29 for 377 yards and one TD, plus a 23-yard TD run.
What it means: It’s just one game against a mid-level FCS program, but Towles didn’t do anything in the opener to lose ground to Barker or Phillips. He gave a composed performance and the Wildcats’ offense looked great in the 59-14 rout. Kentucky hosts Ohio this weekend before facing a huge test in its Sept. 13 SEC opener at Florida. That will provide the first legitimate litmus test for Towles and the revamped Wildcats offense. – David Ching
Towles’ hold on position: 8

LSU
Starter: Anthony Jennings
Backup: Brandon Harris
How Jennings performed: Jennings and LSU’s offense looked awful in the first half against Wisconsin, but the sophomore performed a bit better down the stretch. He was 4-for-6 for 119 yards and a touchdown in the second half after his improvised 80-yard touchdown pass to Travin Dural in the first quarter provided nearly all of the Tigers’ offensive production in the opening half. Jennings played every possession but one, while Harris underwhelmed in his single series under center.
What it means: LSU has a couple of easier non-conference games ahead -- Saturday against Sam Houston State and the following week against Louisiana-Monroe -- so Harris should get some much-needed work against live competition. Likewise, Jennings will benefit from some more game reps before the Tigers host Mississippi State on Sept. 20. He looks like the clear leader for now. – David Ching
Jennings’ hold on position: 6

Tennessee
Starter: Justin Worley
Backup: Joshua Dobbs and Nathan Peterman
How Worley performed: Tennessee clearly made the right decision in going with Worley as its starting quarterback. The senior looked like a completely different player than last year as he went 27 of 38 for 273 yards and three touchdowns against Utah State. The most impressive part was his decision-making. He didn’t try and force any balls. He took what the defense gave him and simply picked it apart.
What it means: For starters, it means that barring injury, Dobbs and Peterman will have to wait until next year before they see the field. Worley is the guy. Even if he struggles in two weeks against Oklahoma, he showed enough improvement in the first game that Butch Jones will likely ride it out. However, before the Volunteers head to Norman, Worley has a chance to put up big numbers again this Saturday against Arkansas State. – Greg Ostendorf
Worley’s hold on position: 9

Texas A&M
Starter: Kenny Hill
Backup: Kyle Allen
How Hill performed: The sophomore, who was making his starting debut, was nearly flawless. Considering the circumstances (on the road against a ranked opponent in a hostile environment), you couldn't ask more of Hill, who broke Johnny Manziel's single-game school records for passing yards (511) and completions (44). He was poised and productive against South Carolina.
What it means: Life after Manziel won't be so rough. If this is what the Aggies can expect from Hill moving forward, the ceiling on their season changes drastically. Most assumed there would be growing pains, but Hill seems to be a natural fit for the Aggies' Air Raid-inspired offense. He has numerous talented weapons to throw to and an excellent offensive line protecting him. Allen made it a close battle in camp and continues to compete, but the Aggies made the right decision as Hill was ready to take the reins. Sumlin's not the type to shuffle quarterbacks, so this looks like Hill's job for the forseeable future. – Sam Khan
Hill’s hold on position: 10

Vanderbilt
Starter: Patton Robinette
Backup: Stephen Rivers
Other: Johnny McCrary
How Robinette performed: Robinette's numbers weren't bad (4-for-6 passing, 38 yards) but the offense was unable to generate much while he was in, punting four times and turning it over in five drives. Unfortunately for Robinette, he was yanked before having a real chance to develop a rhythm in favor of Rivers, who went 12-for-25 for 186 yards and an interception.
What it means: The Commodores don't have a starting quarterback. The musical chairs that played out in the 37-7 loss to Temple (redshirt freshman McCrary appeared briefly that night, too), means Vanderbilt is searching for an answer. Derek Mason told reporters this week that the quarterbacks know who will start Saturday vs. Ole Miss but he won't announce who it is publicly. The Vanderbilt quarterback depth chart for the Ole Miss game reads: Stephen Rivers "OR" Patton Robinette "OR" Johnny McCrary. – Sam Khan
Robinette’s hold on the position: 0

What we learned in the SEC: Week 1

August, 31, 2014
Aug 31
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Wow, what a first weekend of football around the SEC. And it’s not over yet, since Tennessee-Utah State will wrap up the weekend on Sunday.

For now, though, let’s recap some of what we’ve learned so far about the SEC of 2014.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTodd Gurley and Georgia made a loud statement with their 45-21 trouncing of Clemson on Saturday.
The league looks wide open: If we learned anything over the last couple of days, it’s that both of these division races will be wide open. It started when Eastern Division favorite South Carolina laid an egg against Texas A&M on Thursday, but several of Saturday’s games only solidified the point.

Alabama -- particularly its reconstructed secondary -- had all sorts of problems against West Virginia and its vaunted passing game. Defending league champ Auburn remains an offensive juggernaut, but its defense got manhandled at times early by an improving Arkansas offense. And LSU was on the verge of getting blown out early in the second half before a fake punt gave the Tigers some life, helping them rally from a 24-7 deficit to beat Wisconsin 28-24.

With Texas A&M and Georgia also making statements with impressive wins in their season debuts, it’s evident that nobody has a cakewalk to reach Atlanta. The preseason favorites all have questions to answer, and there are several candidates to rise from the middle of the pack to challenge them.

Heisman hopefuls make moves: Texas A&M quarterback Kenny Hill wasn’t the only SEC player to jump into the Heisman Trophy conversation. Hill’s school-record 511 passing yards and three touchdowns on 44-for-60 passing had to go down as one of the most impressive starting debuts in recent memory. But he had company among SEC offensive standouts.

Todd Gurley broke Rodney Hampton’s Georgia record with 293 all-purpose yards against Clemson -- 198 on the ground and 100 more on a kickoff return for a touchdown (he lost five yards receiving). Between his running and a dominant second half from Jeremy Pruitt’s defense, the Bulldogs were able to bury Clemson 45-21.

Cameron Artis-Payne ran for 122 yards in the second half against Arkansas and finished with 26 carries for 177 yards and a touchdown as Auburn held the Razorbacks scoreless in the second half to put away a 45-21 win.

Quarterback races progress: Hill made as emphatic a statement as possible about his status as Texas A&M’s starting quarterback after winning a preseason battle. But some of the league’s other QB races remain, well, unclear.

Blake Sims (24-33, 250 yards, INT, plus 42 rushing yards) did a fine job in taking nearly every snap in Alabama’s win over West Virginia. And Patrick Towles (20-29, 377 yards, TD, plus a 23-yard rushing score) was outstanding in Kentucky’s rout of overmatched Tennessee-Martin.

But then a couple of QB battles don’t seem resolved at all. LSU’s Anthony Jennings played most of the game against Wisconsin, but the Tigers’ offense struggled mightily before closing with a flourish. He finished 9-for-21 for 238 yards and two touchdowns. However, freshman Brandon Harris looked lost during the one series he was in the game, so he doesn’t appear to be a better option right now.

Vanderbilt also faces a bit of a quandary at the position. Stephen Rivers (12-25, 186 yards, INT), Patton Robinette (4-6, 38 yards) and Johnny McCrary (0-3, 2 INTs) all played, but nothing went right for the Commodores in a 37-7 loss to Temple.

We’ll see how Tennessee’s Justin Worley fares on Sunday night after winning the Volunteers’ preseason QB battle.

Bad teams are better: Arkansas and Kentucky -- two teams that went winless in SEC play a season ago -- made it clear that they will be tougher in 2014.

It’s difficult to know what to make of Kentucky’s 59-14 win over UT-Martin. We probably shouldn’t read too much into a blowout against a middling FCS program, after all. And yet the Wildcats showed off some impressive new weapons.

How about Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard taking his only two carries for touchdowns of 73 and 43 yards? And Towles connecting with 10 different receivers? It was an impressive debut to be sure.

Even in a losing effort, Arkansas’ physicality had to be what Razorbacks fans wanted to see from a club that lost nine straight games to close out the 2013 season. They pushed Auburn around for a portion of the game and were still thinking upset until Auburn’s Jermaine Whitehead made it a two-touchdown game by returning a deflected pass for a score with 2:39 left in the third quarter.

Auburn really can pass: We heard all offseason that Auburn would put the ball in the air more frequently this season, and it looks like the Tigers have the pieces in place to do that.

Junior college transfer D'haquille Williams was outstanding in his Auburn debut, catching nine passes for 154 yards and a touchdown, while Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson combined to throw for 293 yards and a pair of scores. The ground game is still the Tigers’ calling card (Auburn rushed for 302 yards), but they’re going to be even tougher to defend if they keep throwing like this.

SEC morning links

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
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1. You’re up LSU. Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason named Patton Robinette as his starting quarterback on Thursday night, leaving only one starting battle -- LSU’s -- publicly open. Tennessee (Justin Worley), Kentucky (Patrick Towles), Texas A&M (Kenny Hill) and now Vanderbilt have all announced the victors in their quarterback races lately after allowing the races to extend well into preseason camp. At Vandy, Robinette, who came into August as the favorite, won out over LSU transfer Stephen Rivers and redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary. “We were just looking for the most consistent guy day in and day out. He had very few lows, a lot of highs and really just did a great job of keeping his composure,” Mason said in announcing his decision.

2. You’ve probably seen 100 lame, subjective lists where some bored columnist ranks the best SEC fan bases -- usually in a summertime column when there’s no actual news to cover. Emory University’s sports marketing analytics group tries to gauge fan support in a more scientific fashion (you can read about its methodology here) and it found that six of the top 12 fan bases are in the SEC, led by Nos. 3-6 Georgia, Florida, Auburn and Arkansas. Surely Alabama and LSU fans can find some nits to pick with this study, but take that up with the folks at Emory. As they explained, evaluating the quality of a sports brand is a complicated endeavor.

3. Let’s revise that item from this post yesterday. It turns out that the organizers of a charity fundraiser in Mobile, Alabama, don’t want infamous Crimson Tide fan Harvey Updyke to be associated with the event after all. That’s the smart move. This is an event designed to engender goodwill for a great cause, not give a jerk the dunking or pie in the face that he so richly deserves. Former Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron’s mother, Dee Dee, is involved in the event, which will be held in tribute of a 7-year-old boy who recently passed away after a battle with cancer. Here’s hoping it turns into the successful event it should have been all along before adding Updyke threatened to turn it into a sideshow act.

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Patton Robinette to start for Vandy

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
10:27
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason has named Patton Robinette as his starting quarterback a week before the Commodores' season opener against Temple.
Mason announced his decision Thursday night.

"I'm excited for Patton as we prepare this team for the season opener next Thursday," Mason said in a statement. "Patton has really made strides and consistently improved from the spring to now. I believe he has worked to earn this opportunity."

The 6-foot-4 Robinette, the only quarterback with any starting experience at Vanderbilt, beat out Johnny McCrary and Stephen Rivers, the younger brother of Philip, who's quarterback for the NFL's San Diego Chargers. The Commodores started fall practice with six quarterbacks competing.

To continue reading this story, click here.
 

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Previewing the 2014 season for the Vanderbilt Commodores:

2013 record: 9-4 (4-4 SEC). Beat Houston 41-24 in the BBVA Compass Bowl.

Final grade for the 2013 season: This was quite the finale for former coach James Franklin. Winning nine games in back-to-back seasons was a first for Vanderbilt, and so was beating Florida, Georgia and Tennessee in the same season. There were some up-and-down times for the offense, but the defense ranked sixth in the SEC. The Commodores capped the season with a blowout win over Houston in their bowl game, giving Vandy a solid A- for the season.

Key losses: QB Austyn Carta-Samuels, RB Wesley Tate, WR Jordan Matthews, WR Jonathan Krause, OT Wesley Johnson, DE Walker May, CB Andre Hal, S Kenny Ladler

[+] EnlargeCaleb Azubike
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesCaleb Azubike posted 10 tackles for loss and four sacks as part of the DE rotation in 2013.
Key returnees: QB Patton Robinette, RB Jerron Seymour, RB Brian Kimbrow, OT Andrew Jelks, C Joe Townsend, DT Vince Taylor, LB Caleb Azubike, LB Kyle Woestmann

Breakout player: While Vandy has to replace a stud in Ladler at safety, new coach Derek Mason is very excited about the prospects of redshirt freshman Oren Burks. He was recruited to Vandy as a linebacker, but Mason calls him one of the best safeties people haven't heard about. At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Burks should have no problem knocking people around.

Key position battle: Being a new coach in the SEC is one thing, but being a new coach and having a quarterback battle is another. It's down to three players -- Robinette, LSU transfer Stephen Rivers and redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary -- and Mason has actually been pretty excited about the competition for a while now. Robinette has the most experience, and even came off the bench to deliver a comeback win over Georgia last year and later directed wins over Florida and Tennessee. Rivers, the younger brother of San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, played sparingly at LSU, but he made up a lot of ground with his competitors this fall. He has a ton of upside and has two years of eligibility. McCrary might be the most athletic and the most talented of the bunch, which could get him on the field even if he isn't the starter.

Most important game: Even though the Commodores are breaking in a new coach, they aren't going to be overlooked in 2014. That means getting off to a fast start, and a win over Ole Miss in Nashville could be crucial to the Commodores' bowl chances in 2014. Last year's back-and-forth scoring act between these two was one for the ages. We still don't know fully what to expect from Vandy this fall, so to start 3-0 would be huge when it comes to the postseason.

Biggest question mark: The loss of Matthews and Krause takes away 154 receptions, 2,191 yards and 10 touchdowns from a year ago. That leaves sophomore Jordan Cunningham as the leading returning pass-catcher at receiver with his 15 catches from a year ago. Experience isn't something the Commodores have at receiver, and it doesn't help that the quarterback situation is unsettled. Redshirt freshman C.J. Duncan is a converted running back and might be the Commodores' most versatile player. Still, he has no in-game experience. Sophomore Latevius Rayford and redshirt freshman Gerald Perry have all shown flashes, and Kris Kentera has moved from tight end.

Upset special: Last year, Vandy went on a run of upsets. While beating Florida in Gainesville was historic for the Commodores, the biggest win of the season came when Vandy took down No. 15 Georgia 31-27 at home. This season, the Commodores could have another upset in the making with a home game against South Carolina on Sept. 20. The Gamecocks will enter the season ranked ninth in the country, and there's always that one game in which the Gamecocks get caught snoozing. Steve Spurrier has lost to Vandy twice (2007, 2008) since taking over at South Carolina in 2005, and both times his Gamecocks were ranked, including No. 6 in 2007. Four games in this series have been decided by seven or fewer points in that span.

Key stat: Vandy owned the SEC's No. 6 defense last year, but ranked 13th in the league when it came to stopping opponents in the red zone. Teams scored on 40 of 46 (86.96 percent) trips inside the Commodores' 20 last year. Twenty-nine of those scores were touchdowns.

They said it: "We’re going to be physical. We’re going to be a team that doesn’t beat itself. You’re going to have to take it out of our hands. We’re going to be a team that it’s going to take you four quarters -- you may even have to go five -- to try and pull one out of the hat. We’re just a team that’s going to be blue collar in terms of what we work toward, what we look like." -- Mason

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Information: 4.93

Bovada over/under: 6

Our take: One thing that made Franklin so successful at Vandy was the attitude he instilled in his team. This was a program used to being pushed around at the bottom of the conference. Back-to-back nine-win seasons and three straight bowl trips were all firsts for the school, so can Mason, who also arrived in Nashville as a highly touted assistant coach, replicate Franklin's success? Now that everyone is paying attention to the Commodores, it won't be easy, and having questions at quarterback and receiver won't help, either. But a solid offensive line and running game should help the passing game, while Vandy has some good, underrated talent within its front seven and could have some breakout candidates in the secondary. Vandy won't get back to nine wins this season, but the Commodores will make their fourth straight bowl game, winning six games during the regular season.
Whether you believe him or not, Alabama coach Nick Saban is playing his quarterback battle close to the vest.

You, me and everyone in between has former Florida State backup Jacob Coker taking the starting job in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, but Saban isn't going to make it that easy. What Saban doesn't want is an overly confident quarterback walking into his program and screwing things up, so Saban's language makes sense.

Still, we're all pretty sure that Coker will leave fall practice ahead of Blake Sims and those youngsters who duked it out during spring practice.

While we might have it all figured out for the Crimson Tide, competition will take place next month to see who starts the opener against West Virginia on Aug. 30. And that's not the only QB battle that we'll be diving into in the coming weeks. Other teams are trying to sort things out under center heading into fall camp:

KENTUCKY

Patrick Towles vs. Drew Barker vs. Reese Phillips vs. Maxwell Smith: Coming out of spring, Towles, a redshirt sophomore, had a slight lead over everyone. He's an impressive athlete and has matured considerably since his arrival on campus. Phillips and Barker have yet to take snaps with the Wildcats in a real game, but that won't stop the coaches from throwing them in on Day 1 of the season. Barker arrived with a ton of hype and is clearly the future of the position. Smith, the quarterback with the most experience on the roster, is finally throwing again after undergoing extensive shoulder surgery before the spring. If he's healthy, he'll compete, but it looks like this really is a three-horse race right now. Advantage: Towles

LSU

Anthony Jennings vs. Brandon Harris: Jennings ended last season with mixed reviews after replacing an injured Zach Mettenberger. And his spring got even tougher with the emergence of Harris, a true freshman. Both are incredibly inexperienced, but have that dual-threat quality that will help either this fall, as they try to run this offense. Harris really impressed his coaches and teammates this spring, and many think he might have a slight advantage. Coach Les Miles raved about him at SEC media days and praised his throwing ability, something Jennings has to work more on going forward. Advantage: Harris

TENNESSEE

Justin Worley vs. Josh Dobbs vs. Nathan Peterman: Worley is the old soul around the football complex. The senior had an up-and-down 2013 season that included thumb surgery, but left spring with a bit more confidence. Dobbs has the athleticism and upside to be a stud, but he has to get more comfortable in the pocket and mature as a passer. Peterman had limited reps this spring, causing some to think he would transfer, but he'll compete this fall for the starting job. Honestly, it's a murky situation at quarterback, but a complete overhaul of the offensive line might make it tough for any quarterback to succeed in 2014. Advantage: Worley

TEXAS A&M

Kenny Hill vs. Kyle Allen: Hill's arrest during the spring perked a lot of ears in the Allen camp, but this race is far from over. While Hill is still looking to regain trust, he has more experience than Allen, a true freshman, and knows the Aggies' offense better to this point. Both are athletic guys, but you'll see a little more running out of Hill. Allen has the potential to be a star with his throwing ability and awareness in the pocket, and might be little more polished than Hill in that category. Sumlin isn't the kind of coach who wants to shuffle his quarterbacks, a la Steve Spurrier, but he won't be afraid to play both guys this fall if he has to. Advantage: Push

VANDERBILT

Patton Robinette vs. Johnny McCrary vs. Stephen Rivers vs. Wade Freebeck: During the spring, we thought this was going to come down to Robinette and McCrary. Robinette has the only game experience on the roster at quarterback, but McCrary is a big, physical player who can make plays with his arm and legs. He might be the most athletic of the bunch and is viewed as an exciting up-and-comer. But when Rivers transferred from LSU, things changed. He only has one year to compete, and his coaches are raving about him. Coach Derek Mason also likes that he's gotten bigger since his arrival. As for Freebeck, Mason calls him "phenomenal" and is intrigued by his size. He's grown two inches (6-foot-5 now) and is up to 217 pounds. Advantage: Push
A lot is new for Vanderbilt this season, which means there's a chance for some of the younger guys to earn their stripes in Nashville this fall.

The Commodores watched only three true freshmen play in 2013, so there's plenty of room -- and field space -- for these guys to improve in 2014. With Derek Mason now in charge, no position will be safe.

[+] EnlargeJordan Cunningham
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsJordan Cunningham has the most receptions of any returning Vanderbilt receiver.
Class recap: Former Vandy coach James Franklin made plenty of waves throughout the recruiting world with some solid hauls during his three years with the Dores. His 2013 class was the nation's No. 22-ranked class that included 26 signees. Five of those signees were ESPN 300 members. The Commodores signed three ESPN 300 wide receivers and the nation's No. 1 junior college tight end in Brandon Vandenburg. However, Vandenburg was dismissed before ever playing a down after he was one of four players dismissed from the team amid sex crimes investigation last summer.

Second-year star: WR Jordan Cunningham (6-foot-1, 178 pounds)

Recruiting stock: Cunningham was Vandy's top-rated recruit in the 2013 class. He was ranked as the 13th-best receiver nationally and received attention from a plethora of schools nationwide. He held nearly 50 offers and was courted by SEC powers Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU. The Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native eventually chose Vandy over Florida State, Miami and Stanford.

2013 in review: Cunningham played in all 13 games last fall, earning his first-career start at South Carolina. He also ranked third on Vandy's team with 15 catches for 123 yards. While Cunningham didn't make it into the end zone last season, and his longest reception was just 14 yards, he showed flashes of being a big target for whichever quarterback takes over for the Commodores this fall. In Vandy's win over Austin Peay, Cunningham led all receivers with seven catches for 67 yards.

2014 potential: With Jordan Matthews gone, the quarterback situation far from settled, and the Commodores looking for anyone to step up at wide receiver, Cunningham will be given plenty of opportunities to be the go-to guy. His 15 receptions from last season are actually the most of any player coming back for Vandy, so there's inexperience all around him. Cunningham has the big-play ability to be a real game-changer. He has solid speed and isn't afraid to make plays over the middle with his size. He'll need some help in order avoid constant double teams, but Cunningham possess the athleticism to create his own space.

Also watch for: As mentioned earlier, Vandy is still trying to figure out its quarterback situation. Redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary was in the thick of the competition with redshirt sophomore Patton Robinette, who saw plenty of time last fall. The thing that makes McCrary an exciting player to watch is his size (6-4, 222 pounds) and his athleticism. Redshirt freshman running back Ralph Webb could be a very solid player for the Commodores this fall. He'll share carries with vets Brian Kimbrow and Jerron Seymour, but the coaches were pleased with his play this spring, and he could be a budding star for the Dores. Redshirt freshman linebacker Nigel Bowden has a chance to get a good amount of reps and has the makings of a breakout player. Another redshirt freshman with plenty of upside is defensive tackle Jay Woods, who was one of Vandy's top signees from the 2013 class.
This year, the SEC has a few schools that will be relying heavily on their quarterbacks to help them get out of a bit of a rut. These guys have the responsibility of taking their programs either up, or down. It's the price for wanting to be a star in this league.

Jobs are on the line. Fan bases are hungry. These quarterbacks will have to deliver for their respective programs to get on track in 2014.

So who are the potential program-saving quarterbacks in the SEC? We have three:

[+] EnlargeJeff Driskel
AP Photo/John RaouxJeff Driskel must bounce back from injury for the sake of the Gators and the future of Will Muschamp.
1. Jeff Driskel, RJr., Florida: He didn't get to show off the growth his teammates and coaches saw last year after an early leg injury cut his 2013 season short, but the pressure is on Driskel to perform -- and win -- in 2014. He's running a more Driskel-friendly spread under new OC Kurt Roper and looked a lot more comfortable in the shotgun this spring. After a disastrous 4-8 season, the direction of the program -- and coach Will Muschamp's job -- could rest heavily on Driskel and how he evolves under his third offensive coordinator in four years.

2. Brandon Allen, Jr., Arkansas: Allen trudged through last season by averaging less than 150 yards per game and completing less than 50 percent of his passes. The Hogs weren't a passing threat, and if this program is going to see any sort of improvement, Allen has to make the passing game respectable again. The pressure increases without a proven star receiver to throw to, but it sounds like Allen improved this summer and separated himself in the quarterback battle. Coach Bret Bielema would love to pound opponents with his running game, but if teams don't respect the pass, they'll gobble up the running game.

3. Drew Barker, Fr., Kentucky: While he will still be in the thick of a heated competition with redshirt sophomore Patrick Towles this fall, there's no question that Barker is being viewed by most as the future of Kentucky's program. The future could be sooner than later if he continues develop through fall camp. Barker being the guy doesn't mean the Wildcats will make it back to a bowl game this season, but it could start the wheels in motion for this program to rebound. That's a lot for a true freshman to take in, but he signed up for this.

Honorable mention: Johnny McCrary, RFr., Vanderbilt: The quarterback competition at Vandy is far from over, but McCrary might be the most talented quarterback on the Commodores' roster. He brings a little bit more to the table athletically and could be a real difference-maker if he's the guy this year and could be the quarterback of the future to help continue Vandy's momentum.

What about guys who could help bring in top talent at the position with a solid year? We have a few more:

1. Dylan Thompson, Sr., South Carolina: We all know that Connor Mitch is waiting in the wings, but a solid season by Thompson could make throwing the pigskin at South Carolina look that much more desirable to high school prospects. Connor Shaw might have started that trend, and Thompson could ramp up excitement.

2. Maty Mauk, RSo., Missouri: Mauk really impressed when he took over from James Franklin for a month last season. Now, he has a chance to be a terror for SEC defenses on a regular basis. Seeing another quarterback put up monster numbers in Mizzou's offense will have younger QBs drooling.

3. Nick Marshall, Sr., Auburn: Everyone knows that Auburn loves to run the ball, but the Tigers want to evolve into more of a passing team. Marshall has been working more on his throwing, and if he can make this team more dangerous through the air, Auburn should start hearing from more elite young passers.

4. Justin Worley, Sr., Tennessee: There's about an 80-percent chance that Worley will be the starter to begin the season. We've seen only flashes from him, but if he can direct the Vols to a winning season or a bowl berth, this job will be more attractive to top recruits.

5. Dak Prescott, Jr., Mississippi State: He's revamping parts of his game this year in order to be a more complete player. Getting wins and making Dan Mullen's offense look really fun to play in will make more quarterbacks take notice of the Bulldogs.

As always, no guarantees in the SEC

April, 30, 2014
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Answers rarely come in abundance in the spring. Football answers anyway.

In the SEC, spring practice has come and gone again this year. And as usual, there are things we think we know and really don’t. There are things we’re sweating and probably shouldn’t be. And then there are those things that sort of have a way of burying themselves until the real lights come on in the fall.

“I don’t know of many championships that have been won in the spring,” said Steve Spurrier, who won six SEC titles at Florida and is still pushing to win one at South Carolina. “You find out some things about your team, but there’s a lot you don’t know.”

What is known, at least in the realm of SEC football, is that this is the first time since 2006 that the league has exited a spring without one of its schools being the defending national champion.

Florida went on to win it all during the 2006 season, igniting a streak of seven straight national championships for the SEC -- a streak that was broken in January when Florida State rallied to beat Auburn in the final seconds at the Rose Bowl.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesNick Marshall wasn't even on Auburn's campus last spring. Now he might be the best quarterback in the SEC.
Auburn is as good a pick as any from the SEC to rejoin the national championship equation this fall, and a big reason why is a quarterback nobody knew much about this time a year ago on the Plains.

Nick Marshall wasn’t even on campus for spring practice last year; he was finishing up junior college. But he was easily one of the most improved players in college football last season with his exceptional athletic ability and knack for making the big play.

Now, with a spring practice under his belt and an entire season in Gus Malzahn’s offense, Marshall figures to be much more in 2014 than simply a dynamic athlete and adequate passer.

He might be the best quarterback in this league.

“I think the big thing is just being more comfortable,” Malzahn said. “You can see him in the pocket. He’s just more under control. His balance is good. His eyes and his progression are good, so you can tell he’s really improved.”

So whereas there are zero questions surrounding who will play quarterback at Auburn, the Tigers’ Iron Bowl rival, Alabama, went the entire first half of its spring game without scoring a touchdown.

Granted, sometimes the real mission in a spring game is not to show too much or get anybody hurt. But there was no hiding the Alabama quarterbacks’ struggles in that game, nor the fact that the guy who’s probably the favorite to win the job -- Florida State transfer Jacob Coker -- was a spectator at the game. Coker will be on campus next month.

The quarterback position, period, was loaded in the SEC last season, and several coaches agree that some of the defensive numbers that skyrocketed a year ago may come back down to normalcy next season.

At least six schools -- Alabama, Kentucky, LSU, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Vanderbilt -- head into the summer with their quarterback situations not completely settled.

And at five of those schools, there’s a decent chance a true freshman or redshirt freshman could end up winning the job or at least sharing the duties in the fall.

At Kentucky, true freshman Drew Barker is making a bid for the job. True freshman Brandon Harris had a big spring at LSU, while redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson is right in the mix at Tennessee, as is redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary at Vanderbilt.

At Texas A&M, true freshman Kyle Allen is competing with sophomore Kenny Hill for the starting job, although Hill ended the spring indefinitely suspended per athletic department policy after being arrested and charged with public intoxication.

So talk about the great unknown.

Then again, wasn’t it just two springs ago that some guy named Johnny Manziel was coming off an arrest of his own and was nothing more than one of the four candidates to replace Ryan Tannehill as the Aggies’ starter?

Things can obviously change pretty dramatically come fall.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp and Jeff Driskel
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsQuarterback Jeff Driskel and coach Will Muschamp have a lot of pressure to prove Florida's 2013 season was not a sign of things to come.
For Florida and Will Muschamp, they need to change. The Gators, coming off their worst season since 1979, are determined to show that last season’s 4-8 finish was nothing more than an embarrassing hiccup and not a sign that the program is spiraling downward.

Muschamp, with the pressure squarely on, feels much better about his offense coming out of the spring. He hired Kurt Roper away from Duke to run the offense, and quarterback Jeff Driskel is healthy again and back to his comfort zone under Roper.

Driskel’s supporting cast, including the offensive line, needs to be better, but there’s no question Roper will play to Driskel’s strengths next season.

“We’re going to bounce back,” Driskel said. “Sometimes, you need things like [the 2013 season] just to realize where you need to be. You can tell that everybody’s humble, everybody’s ready, everybody’s a team guy, everybody’s a team player.

“I’m really looking forward to it. It should be fun.”

Unpredictable, too.

Sort of like how everybody had Missouri winning the East and Auburn winning the West leaving the spring a year ago -- a pair of teams that won two league games between them the season before.

“The more you’re around this league, the more you realize how small that margin is between being a team that’s pretty good and a team that wins a championship,” said Dylan Thompson, South Carolina’s fifth-year senior quarterback.

“You have to approach every game with the same amount of focus, which is easier said than done. It’s a constant battle, but you have to stay focused the whole ride.”

Vanderbilt spring wrap

April, 30, 2014
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Three things we learned in the spring about the Vanderbilt Commodores:

1. The front seven has promise: With Vandy moving to a 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator David Kotulski, the defensive line should have more freedom and be more versatile. The coaches were very happy with the progress the front seven made, especially Caleb Azubike and Kyle Woestmann, who made the successful move from end to outside linebacker.

2. A more improved running game: Vandy’s coaches were very pleased with how the running game looked this spring, especially when veteran Brian Kimbrow and redshirt freshman Ralph Webb carried the ball. Kimbrow looked a little stronger and still has that home-run ability, while Webb could be a star in the making. Oh, and vet Jerron Seymour is back, too. This offense shouldn’t have a problem leaning on the running game.

3. Strength at cornerback: While the Commodores lost solid starters Dre Hal and Steven Clarke, Mason felt pretty good about the youngsters filling in. Sophomores Paris Head and Torren McGaster had exceptional springs and could take starting spots, while redshirt freshman Tre Bell really made strides this spring. Taurean Ferguson also had a good spring at corner.

Three questions for the fall

1. Who will start at quarterback? While coaches seemed pretty pleased with the progress made by redshirt sophomore Patton Robinette and redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary, it doesn’t look like either really separated himself. That could be a good thing, for now, but Mason will be pushing those guys even harder in fall camp. Also, don’t forget that LSU transfer Stephen Rivers will be around to compete this fall.

2. Who becomes the guy at wide receiver? Top receivers Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Krause are gone, which means so are 2,191 yards, 154 catches and 10 touchdowns from last year. Sophomore Jordan Cunningham is the top returning pass-catcher, after snagging 15 receptions last year. There is a lot of inexperience at receiver and not having the quarterback situation figured out doesn’t make figuring things out there easier.

3. Can players get their edge back? Mason has to replace a coach in James Franklin who completely turned Vandy’s program around. The excitement surrounding Franklin and his teams were tremendous, but can the Commodores get that edge back? This team has a lot of pieces to replace and has to maintain the attitude it had that made it so competitive under Franklin.

One way-too-early prediction:

For a couple of years now, we've heard about the potential that Azubike has. He's an athletic freak and has all the tools to be a top-end defensive player in this league. His move to outside linebacker should make him an even bigger threat for the Commodores. He'll hit the double-digit mark in sacks this fall.

SEC lunchtime links

April, 11, 2014
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Spring games galore this weekend! Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State, South Carolina, Tennessee and Vanderbilt will be in action on Saturday. But news isn't just on the field; there's plenty off the field, too:

SEC's lunchtime links

March, 12, 2014
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Hard-working reporters put in some long hours for the NFL's first day of free agency. It was so packed with news, it was almost like a mini national signing day.

Offseason spotlight: Vanderbilt

February, 10, 2014
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We’re kicking off our offseason spotlight series.

As we did a year ago at this time, we’re taking a closer look at those players facing important offseasons and/or springs for all 14 SEC teams.

It could be a player who is recovering from an injury or perhaps coming off a so-so season. In other cases, the player might be filling some big shoes or stepping into a position of need next season.

The common denominator is that all of the players we highlight need to have big offseasons. We’ll follow up our blog posts each day with a video that expands on other players.

Up first is Vanderbilt, which is coming off its second straight nine-win season but has a brand new look with first-year coach Derek Mason.

[+] EnlargePatton Robinette
Scott Donaldson/Icon SMIPatton Robinette appeared in 10 games as a freshman, but he can expect competition in the spring.
Spotlight: Quarterback Patton Robinette, 6-4, 212, rising sophomore

2013 summary: As a redshirt freshman, Robinette saw action in 10 games, including three starts. He stepped in for Austyn Carta-Samuels after Carta-Samuels injured his knee against Georgia. Robinette quarterbacked the Commodores to a come-from-behind win over the Bulldogs, and in his second start, helped the Commodores win at Florida for the first time since the 1940s. Robinette finished the season completing 52.3 percent of his passes for 642 yards, four touchdown passes and five interceptions. He rushed for seven touchdowns.

The skinny: Robinette's experience makes him the guy to beat at quarterback, but he needs to take his game to another level this spring and offseason. A versatile athlete and extremely smart, Robinette delivered in some pressure situations last season while filling in for Carta-Samuels. His fake jump-pass and touchdown run against Tennessee was one of the plays of the year for the Commodores, but he also seemed to lose his confidence a little bit in the second half of the bowl game. One thing about Robinette is that he will embrace the competition and push himself harder than anybody else will. He'll get a run for his money, too, from redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary, who's 6-4, 225 pounds and has a big arm. Of the two, McCrary has the stronger arm and passed for more than 9,000 yards and 78 touchdowns in high school. He was an early enrollee last year, so this will be his second spring. It should be quite a battle between Robinette and McCrary, and you can bet with Mason and the new staff taking over, there will be fierce competition all over the place this spring. One other name to keep in mind at quarterback is true freshman signee Wade Freebeck, who won't be on campus until this summer. But the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., product recently measured at 6-5 and 215 pounds and chose the Commodores after initially being committed to Pittsburgh.

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