Bob Shoop is simultaneously amazed and disgusted.
Sitting in his office at Vanderbilt, the veteran defensive coordinator logs onto YouTube, secretly hoping the video — and the painful memory that comes with it — no longer exists in cyberspace.
“I show the guys this all the time,” Shoop says. “My worst nightmare of all-time. ... One of the best runs I’ve ever seen. Ah, here it is. I hate this.”
Up flashes a video of Michael Vick in the shotgun at Virginia Tech in 2000. With Verne Lundquist on the call, Vick takes the snap on a third-and-12 at his own 18-yard line. Boston College sends a blitz. The pocket collapses. It doesn’t matter.
Vick dodges inside, eludes one tackler and then he goes left and bounces off another tackler. And he’s off, bursting with remarkable speed down the sideline, sidestepping over three shoelace tackle attempts.
“Look at him run!” Lundquist roars.
To cap it off, Vick jukes one last time at the 5-yard line, causing the defensive player to spin in a circle, and high-steps into the end zone.
“I get chills,” says Shoop, who was the secondary coach at Boston College from 1999-2002. “I contend he is the best college football player I ever saw. ... He’s maybe the inventor of all this stuff. He changed the game forever with some of the things he was able to do with his feet.”
While there probably won’t be another Michael Vick, there’s no shortage of mobile quarterbacks who in spread offenses — and even in traditional sets — give defensive coordinators more than one reason to worry. Shoop looks at Vanderbilt’s upcoming schedule and sees four running quarterbacks in the first five games, including Connor Shaw (South Carolina), Kain Coulter (Northwestern) and James Franklin (Missouri).
The quarterback has long been a lightning rod position, drawing most of the praise for a win and scrutiny for a loss. But as the position has evolved, even more responsibility has fallen onto the shoulders of the one under center, whether he is a drop-back passer, an option or — as Georgia Tech has mastered — triple-option threat or a dynamic athlete running the spread offense.
“It is not necessarily the quarterback. It is the design of the schemes these days,” Shoop said. “It is annoying as hell.”
Staring at Bob Shoop’s defenses on a daily basis, Jordan Rodgers can relate to learning new schemes.
The California kid, fittingly, grew up running West Coast offenses — always taking the snap directly under center. So when the younger brother of NFL MVP and Super Bowl champion Aaron Rodgers transferred to Vanderbilt from a junior college in California, lining up several feet away from the center was a new concept — one that took some getting used to.
“It is a ton of film study and a ton of trial and error,” Rodgers said. “You got to do stuff live. You’ve got to fail at things to learn how to do it better.”
Rodgers is one of the four quarterbacks of local interest who return as starters. Logan Kilgore at Middle Tennessee State, Tyler Bray at Tennessee and Michael German at Tennessee State each has played, as well.
Combined, the four prove Shoop’s point that virtually any scheme can, with the right guy, produce big numbers for the one directing it. With experience, there is the potential for even more.
“You want great players everywhere, and if you’re not as strong at that position and you’re strong somewhere else, hopefully they’ll pick him up,” Vanderbilt offensive coordinator John Donovan said. “But when he is strong, it just makes everybody else a little bit better. So it’s nice to have a guy that’s returning.”
While MTSU and TSU employ aspects of a spread offense, Vanderbilt and UT more closely mirror pro-style attacks. However, the Commodores, under second-year coach James Franklin, run multiple formations, which include setting up in the shotgun.
Regardless of the system, without a proficient quarterback, the machine won’t run smoothly.
“I’m expected to know the offense better than anybody on our team,” Rodgers said. “I need to be able to make checks at the line of scrimmage and put us in the best plays. Coaches aren’t out on the field with us. So they teach me what to do, and I need to be able to execute that on the field. So it’s a huge responsibility.”
Quarterbacks must also know the opposition.
If learning the jargon and relaying the plays in the huddle wasn’t enough, they have to be wary of the defensive attack.
“I watch film Monday through Friday so when they line up in a certain set, when the cornerback is playing this kind of leverage or he is eight yards off [the receiver], I know what coverage to expect already,” said German, who was the 2011 Ohio Valley Conference Freshman of the Year. “I’ve played the game in my head five or six times before I’ve even stepped onto the field.”
With each style comes unique responsibilities.
Quarterbacks under center send receivers in motion, alert the offensive line to blitzes and call audibles. Out of the shotgun, the tempo is faster, with an emphasis on quickly getting the play off and making split decisions after the ball is snapped.
Either way, plenty is riding on the quarterback.
“It’s something I embrace,” said Kilgore, another junior college transfer from California. “My hat’s off to receivers and everybody else on the field. I just don’t think I could stay that focused. I love having the ball in my hands. I love to be in control. I love to get all the blame after a loss and all the credit after a win. It’s something that comes along with the position, and I embrace it every day.”
More than 30 years earlier, Logan Kilgore’s future coach was also welcoming a new role.
Long before he took over at MTSU, Rick Stockstill thrived off seven-step drops and play-action passes as the quarterback in Bobby Bowden’s pro-style offense at Florida State. In 20 starts from 1977 to 1981, he was 15-5 at Florida State and helped the Seminoles reach three bowls. Not once did he pass for more than 300 yards in a game, and he finished his career with just 447 attempts. So naturally, he is now coaching the spread offense in his seventh year as MTSU’s head coach.
“I love it,” said Stockstill, who watched Kilgore throw 365 passes in 11 games last year. “I wish all this stuff was invented when I played.”
Stretching the field has expanded the recruiting pool, Stockstill believes. He sees it when he visits high schools — and not only at quarterback. With less focus on blocking on the edge and with as many as four receivers lining up every play in a gun-slinging offense, size is less of a factor.
Tavarres Jefferson, an Ensworth alum, led the Blue Raiders with 51 receptions in 2011 — and he is only 5 foot 9. In fact, MTSU has just two receivers over 6 feet.
“I think it has created a way for more young people to get involved, enjoy it and have fun,” Stockstill said.
For quarterbacks, by not dropping back, footwork is less of an issue. Shorter quarterbacks feed off throwing through passing lanes created by their linemen.
“A 6-foot quarterback in the shotgun is now a 6-foot-4 quarterback,” Stockstill said. “Height of a quarterback is overrated.”
Also, a strong arm is no longer a prerequisite. Accuracy is of the utmost importance, and sure, mobility doesn’t hurt either.
“You have different players with different skill sets in high school choosing to play quarterback rather than a wide receiver, running back or defensive back,” ESPN analyst and former Michigan quarterback Brian Griese said. “Because they know there is an opportunity for them to play at the next level at that position. Now we’re just starting to see that trickle into the NFL as well, with guys like Cam Newton and Michael Vick.”
In 1983, the NFL Draft produced the “Quarterback Class,” with a record six quarterbacks taken in the first round, including three future Hall of Famers.
The top pick was John Elway. As a senior at Stanford, he threw for 3,242 yards and led the nation with 24 touchdowns.
Last year, that touchdown total would have tied Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson for 32nd most in the Football Bowl Subdivision and would have been half the total of Case Keenum of Houston, who topped the nation with 48.
Keenum is the FBS career leader in touchdowns, passing yards and completions and is third in single-season passing yards behind former Texas Tech quarterbacks B.J. Symons (5,833) and Graham Harrell (5,705).
In fact, of the top 15 single seasons in the FBS, 13 happened within the last 20 years. Brigham Young’s Ty Detmer and David Klingler of Houston are the oldest on the list, both surpassing 5,100 passing yards in 1990.
Even with the gaudy numbers and records, Keenum went undrafted last April. He signed with the Houston Texans and is currently fighting to be the team’s third-string quarterback.
Elway never went to a bowl and had a losing record in college. While it is unfair to compare the two, especially since Keenum’s pro career is still in front of him, it serves as an example that 30 years later, the NFL prefers strong, physical quarterbacks over inflated numbers in the spread offense.
“You still have those traditional quarterbacks that can throw the ball, read defenses, be in the pocket and orchestrate the offense,” Griese said. “I, quite frankly, think that style will always be a part of football.”
Because the NFL is the gold standard.
Arguably the league’s top five quarterbacks include — in some order — Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Eli Manning and Peyton Manning. All five, including the shorter Brees (6-foot-1), possess the arm strength and durability to last in the NFL.
Tyler Bray could fit that bill. Though he is most likely two years away from being drafted, the Tennessee junior fits the pro mold with a 6-foot-6 215-pound frame and a big arm. And he hasn’t even beaten an SEC team with a winning record. Vick and the late Steve McNair are recent exceptions to the NFL rule. They succeeded because they provided an extra wrinkle. But that isn’t always enough. Just ask Vince Young.
“Until those types of quarterbacks who have run that spread system in college and run a hybrid in the NFL start showing they can get through an entire season, play well, play at a high level and stay healthy,” Griese said, “you’re always going to have that natural barrier to those quarterbacks competing in that league.”
Big numbers don’t always lead to wins, either. Kilgore and the Blue Raiders learned that last year. Kilgore’s 2,231 passing yards were the sixth-most in a single season by an MTSU quarterback. Against Troy, he threw for 415 yards (third most) and five touchdowns (second most). But the Blue Raiders lost that game and nine others to finish a horrid 2-10.
Ultimately, that is the biggest goal.
“I’ve been in this game long enough to know whether it is little league, high school, college or the NFL, if you have a quarterback, you have a chance,” said Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, a former Division II quarterback.
So last year, Franklin gave his team a chance when he started Rodgers for the first time, in the seventh game. He was the choice over now-graduated Larry Smith, who ranks 10th in Vanderbilt history with 3,223 passing yards, but struggled to get the Commodores in the end zone.
With Rodgers’ mobility — he was second on the team with 420 rushing yards — they were a more explosive offense. The Commodores averaged 31 points in Rodgers’ seven starts and gave defenses fits. Luckily for Shoop, he was on the right sideline this time.
“A hundred out of a hundred defensive coordinators would say they’d rather see a guy who is a drop-back quarterback, who you know where he is on the set point all the time, and you can make him throw out of a well,” Shoop said. “Then there are those quarterbacks who make plays when everybody is covered and can just run the ball. ... It is very, very challenging.”
Tyler Bray, Tennessee
Height: 6 foot 6
Key stat: Threw multiple touchdowns in 10 straight games, breaking Peyton Manning’s school record of seven.
Scouting report: Physical build gives him ideal size for a pro prospect, and he possesses one of the strongest arms in the SEC. But needs to be more consistent and clutch — he hasn’t defeated an SEC team with a winning record.
Quote: “Tyler came in his first year [in 2010] and had some youthful confidence. He did some great things on the field, and then last year he went through some experiences that he hadn’t been used to in any part of his career, and I think it matures him … I think he is going to have a big year for us.” — coach Derek Dooley
Michael German, Tennessee State
Height: 6 foot 2
Weight: 215 pounds
Key stat: Making his college debut as a redshirt freshman in 2011, he did not throw an interception in his first 137 pass attempts.
Scouting report: A strong-armed quarterback who plays bigger than he is with impressive accuracy and enough mobility to elude sacks.
Quote: “He’s a really confident kid. He feels like he can make every throw, sometimes when it’s not there, but we’ve got the utmost faith in Mike.” — coach Rod Reed
Logan Kilgore, Middle Tennessee State
Height: 6 foot 3
Weight: 194 pounds
Key stat: In 2011, he threw for 2,231 yards, sixth all-time.
Scouting report: A precision passer who can shred defenses underneath, he also possesses big-play potential but struggled to be consistent during 2-10 season in 2011.
Quote: “Last year was a great learning experience for him. He experienced a couple highs. He experienced a bunch of lows. The bottom line for a quarterback is you’ve got to win, and we didn’t win enough last year.” — coach Rick Stockstill
Jordan Rodgers, Vanderbilt
Height: 6 foot 1
Weight: 212 pounds
Key stat: Offense averaged 31 points in Rodgers’ seven starts in 2011.
Scouting report: Dual-threat quarterback with surprising speed. Must improve short passing game.
Quote: “Jordan Rodgers was a real find for [coach James Franklin] in getting a quarterback that both could throw the football with speed and velocity but also accuracy, and also get outside the pocket and use his feet.” — ESPN analyst Brian Griese
Last year: 6-7, 2-6 SEC (T-4th in East)
Coach: James Franklin (second year)
Offense: Pro-style Defense: 4-3
What’s a good season: A win over rival Tennessee and a second straight trip to a bowl, which would be a first in the program’s 122-year history. It might seem far-fetched, but if the Commodores go 4-0 in nonconference play (Northwestern and Wake Forest are the juggernauts) and snag wins from South Carolina and Tennessee, they’ll have a chance for eight wins thanks to a favorable schedule.
What’s a bad season: Failing to return to a bowl. It wouldn’t be a huge disappointment given Vanderbilt’s track record, but it would wipe away some of the momentum and buzz James Franklin built in his first year as coach. Losses to Kentucky and/or Tennessee would add salt to the wound.
Biggest strength: Running back
Zac Stacy returns after breaking the school’s single-season rushing record. He’s joined by former running mate Warren Norman, the 2009 SEC Freshman of the Year who sat out all of last season with a knee injury. Top recruit Brian Kimbrow out of Memphis is expected to get some carries as a freshman, and sophomore Jerron Seymour and versatile running back-slot receiver Wesley Tate return.
Biggest weakness: Linebacker
The Commodores are thin even with the return of starters Archibald Barnes and Chase Garnham, who will move to the middle to replace Chris Marve. Tristan Strong returns after his second ACL injury in three years, and freshmen Darreon Herring and Kellen Williams are talented but untested. Expect plenty of nickel coverage early to compensate for depth concerns.
Player to watch: Wide receiver Jordan Matthews.
A distant cousin of Jerry Rice, Matthews came on strong during the second half of last season to lead the team in receiving yards (778) and touchdowns (5). At 6 foot 3 and extremely athletic, the junior is Vanderbilt’s best deep-ball threat and could threaten 1,000 receiving yards this fall.
Game to watch: South Carolina at Vanderbilt, Aug. 30
All eyes will be on the Commodores as they open the season on a Thursday night in front of a nationally televised audience, on their new field turf under their new lights with a new Jumbotron in the background and against the SEC East favorite.
MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE
Coach: Rick Stockstill (seventh year)
Last year: 2-10, 1-7 Sun Belt (8th)
Offense: Spread Defense: 4-3
What’s a good season: Finishing in the top half of the Sun Belt would be considered a success. They have a favorable home schedule with FCS McNeese State and conference also-rans Florida Atlantic, Louisiana-Monroe and North Texas coming to Murfreesboro. If they can snatch a win against visiting Troy, which is coming off a characteristic three-win season, five wins are possible and six isn’t far-fetched.
What’s a bad season: Failing to win at least five games. Seven road games is daunting, especially with trips to Georgia Tech and Mississippi State, but for a team filled with leadership not to show some resolve would be extremely disappointing.
Biggest strength: Passing game
If the offensive line can hold up — they return just one starter — Logan Kilgore has a chance to build off a sensational season. The redshirt junior threw for 2,231 yards — sixth-best single-season in school history — and completed 58.6 percent of his passes. His top target, Ensworth grad Tavarres Jefferson, is back after hauling in 51 catches.
Biggest weakness: Defense
The Blue Raiders unraveled in a hurry, allowing 36.8 points and 441.1 yards per game. They return four starters on the defensive line but are inexperienced at linebacker and in the secondary. Tyrone Nix arrives as co-defensive coordinator after four years at Ole Miss. He must live up to his reputation for building a strong rushing defense if MTSU stands a chance at staying competitive.
Player to watch: Linebacker Leighton Gasque
The dynamite pass-rusher led all freshmen nationally with seven sacks in 2011. The 6-foot-2 210-pounder was also a threat on special teams, making eight tackles and blocking a kick. The speedy weak-side linebacker will be rotated in often behind the unit’s lone returning starter, Roderic Blunt.
Game to watch: MTSU at Florida International, Oct. 13
Matchup against Sun Belt favorite in middle of season could be turning point or ending point. Kedrick Rhodes, who rushed for 1,149 yards last year, is a huge test for a Blue Raiders defense that was atrocious at stopping the run (229.5 yards per game). The Golden Panthers’ stifling scoring defense, which ranked 14th in the FBS last year, will challenge an inexperienced MTSU offensive line.
Last year: 5-6, 4-4 (T-5th)
Coach: Rod Reed (third year)
Offense: Spread/pro-style Defense: 4-3
What’s a good season: Six wins. The Tigers have improved every year under Reed, and they have enough offense to get in a shootout with anyone. If the defense can improve and slow the pass, which buried TSU several times in 2011, then the first winning season in four years is at hand.
What’s a bad season: Falling back into the basement of the OVC. The Tigers surprised many when they improved from a winless league mark in 2010 to four conference wins and an upset of nationally ranked Tennessee Tech. But if the defense is sketchy again and quarterback Michael German goes through a sophomore slump, they would lose any momentum — and respect — they gained.
Biggest strength: Offense
Nine starters return, including four on the offensive line. Leading the way is OVC Freshman of the Year Michael German. He passed for nearly 2,000 yards and didn’t throw an interception in his first 137 pass attempts. Three of his top four targets return, including Devin Wilson, who caught a team-high 48 passes. Plus, Trabis Ward was just 22 rushing yards away from a 1,000-yard season.
Biggest weakness: Pass defense
Three starters return to a secondary that is still trying to dispel the image of Murray State quarterback Casey Brockman throwing for 600 yards in the third game. TSU allowed more than 300 passing yards on five occasions and gave up 27 passing touchdowns, which tied for the most in the Football Championship Subdivision.
Player to watch: Returner Weldon Garlington
He might be small, but he packs a powerful punch in the form of electrifying speed. The 5-foot-10 160-pounder from Antioch was tabbed to the All-OVC preseason team after averaging 20.5 yards a return. As a true freshman out of Brentwood Academy, he scored touchdowns in consecutive weeks on returns of 91 and 100 yards.
Game to watch: Austin Peay State at Tennessee State, Sept. 15
Football returns to campus and Hale Stadium for the first time since 1998. The matchup marks the first of three games scheduled at Hale in honor of the school’s centennial celebration. It also opens up OVC play as the Tigers will know a lot about their season if they struggle to beat Austin Peay, which won three games in 2011.
Last year: 5-7, 1-7 SEC (6th, East)
Coach: Derek Dooley (third year)
Offense: Pro-style Defense: 3-4
What’s a good season: Winning a bowl. Derek Dooley can save his job if the Vols win a bowl for the first time in five years. They have enough talent on both sides and a favorable nonconference schedule — after a test against North Carolina State, they bring in Georgia State, Akron and Troy — to get to seven, perhaps eight wins.
What’s a bad season: Another losing record. Only eight players remain from Phillip Fulmer’s 2008 signing class, so Dooley’s imprint on the program is larger than ever. Therefore so are the expectations. He doesn’t have the benefit of the doubt anymore after he arrived to clean up Lane Kiffin’s mess. The Vols need a signature win, and another season in the basement won’t cut it.
Biggest strength: Receivers
The receiving corps has the potential to be the best in the country. Da’Rick Rogers made highlight-reel plays on his way to 67 receptions, 1,040 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. Justin Hunter was on pace for the seventh 1,000-yard season in school history before an ACL tear in the third game. He’s returning to pre-injury form, and the Vols also add two-time junior college All-American Cordarrelle Patterson.
Biggest weakness: Linebacker depth
Senior Herman Lathers brings experience, and A.J. Johnson put together one of the best freshman seasons in school history. Beyond them, though, there are question marks. Christian Harris is still rehabbing from an ACL tear, and promising freshman Kenny Bynum suffered a potential season-ending meniscus tear earlier this month.
Player to watch: Linebacker A.J. Johnson
After being out of position at times last year on the outside, the sophomore should feel more at home at inside linebacker in new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri’s 3-4 base formation. At 6 foot 2 and 240 pounds, Johnson has a good combination of size and speed. He showed it off last year as a consensus Freshman All-American. He returns after 80 tackles, the most by a UT freshman since Eric Berry in 2007.
Game to watch: Alabama at Tennessee, Oct. 20
The historic rivalry that dates back to 1901 continues and offers another huge challenge. The Vols will host the defending national champs right after grueling road tests at Georgia and Mississippi State. How they fare at the midpoint could be an indicator of whether they’ll fade down the stretch or are headed toward a bowl.