Jordan Rodgers, like his teammates and coaches, prefers not to look in the past.
But the Vanderbilt quarterback doesn’t ignore yesterday’s lessons either. His short-term memory recalls last year’s Tennessee game — whether he likes it or not.
His early fumble and career-high three interceptions, the last of which Eric Gordon returned 90 yards to lift the Vols to a 27-21 thriller in overtime, aren’t long forgotten. The mistakes taunt Rodgers. They also motivate him to prevent a similar performance from happening again when Tennessee comes to Vanderbilt Stadium on Saturday (6 p.m., ESPN2).
“I feel my performance dictated the end of that game,” Rodgers said. “That’s not going to happen again. I think I’ve grown a lot from last season with my decision-making with the ball.”
Rodgers appears to be a different player all together this year. Hindered last year by a slow recovery and inconsistency, he struggled to prove himself to a new coaching staff and didn’t take over the starting job until halfway through the season.
“Jordan was a guy we had to build trust,” coach James Franklin said. “He had to build trust in us. I had to build trust in him.”
Rodgers admits he didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Franklin. After transferring from a junior college in California, he sat out the 2010 season due to a torn labrum. Recovering from surgery caused him to miss spring practices and make a first impression on the new coaching regime. It also put him behind Larry Smith when the quarterbacks competed in preseason camp. Smith got the nod over Rodgers, who spelled Smith in the first six games before starting the rest of the way.
Still, his decision-making bothered Franklin at times. Rodgers completed just 50 percent of his passes and had more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (9). When he was pulled during a dreadful Liberty Bowl performance, he was visibly upset by Franklin’s decision.
“We butted heads probably that first year,” Rodgers said. “But it was more so me and my reaction to his coaching style. I didn’t know as much as I thought I knew. Sometimes I didn’t taking coaching as well as I should have. That was great. That was great for us to go through that little period where I would react negatively to his coaching. It was my own fault. But it was good for us to grow like that because we’ve got a great relationship now.”
The 24-year-old believes he has matured greatly since last year and his relationship with Franklin didn’t impact his benching earlier in the year.
No, his decision-making caused him to miss the third game of the season against Presbyterian. He turned the ball over three times, twice in the red zone, in the first two games — both losses.
Since then the “game has slowed down for him,” says Franklin. “I love coaching him during the games,” Franklin said. “He is open. He’s coachable. He’s honest. He’s critical of himself without being too hard on himself. He’s see things. So it is making it fun to coach him. I think he is enjoying it as well. That’s all part of the maturation process.”
Completing 59 percent of his passes, Rodgers has thrown only three interceptions and started to find the end zone more frequently. After just three touchdowns in his first six games, he’s had two in each of the last three. His accuracy combined with their athleticism has turned receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd into the most productive receivers in the Southeastern Conference.
Intense film study coupled with mentoring from quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne, a former quarterback at Cornell who Rodgers calls the best quarterbacks coach he’s had, has Rodgers on the brink of several personal milestones.
He needs just 43 passing yards to reach 2,000 for the season, which would be a first for a Vanderbilt quarterback since Chris Nickson threw for 2,085 in 2006. Rodgers sits in front of Nickson at eighth all-time with 3,455 passing yards. With two regular-season games and a bowl game left, Rodgers should be able to surpass John Gromos and Damian Allen and into sixth all-time. It will be hard to catch Eric Jones, who threw for 5,029 yards from 1986-88.
“I don’t really care about my personal statistics,” Rodgers said. “They are nice at the end of the day but if we can keep winning games that is going to be the measure of success for my position at quarterback.”
In that case, one of Rodgers’ most notable accomplishments came last week against Ole Miss.
With his older brother, Aaron, the MVP quarterback for the Green Bay Packers, on the sidelines, Rodgers orchestrated a brilliant two-minute drill. Trailing 26-20, Vanderbilt started at its own 21 with 2:43 left. Rodgers calmly completed five of six passes, scrambled for just enough on a huge fourth down and connected with tight end Kris Kentera for a big gain on third down.
That set up a touchdown that will go down in Vanderbilt history. Rodgers looked down the sideline to see a wide-open Boyd, who hauled in a 26-yard pass to give the Commodores a 27-26 lead. For the first time since high school, Rodgers had led a team on a game-winning drive.
Fifty-two seconds — and a defensive stand — later, Rodgers became the first quarterback to lead Vanderbilt to bowl eligibility in consecutive years for the first time.
“I was confident going into the drive,” Rodgers said. “We had been great in two-minute the last couple weeks in practice as well as in the games. So we were confident and that’s the whole mindset — just getting positive play after positive play. That’s what we did. I wasn’t really too hyped. My mind wasn’t spinning. I was controlled. I was calm. We got what we needed to do done. The adrenaline rush afterwards is like nothing else.”