I know it’s only spring and a lot of things can happen between now and Vanderbilt’s 2019 season opener. But after watching the Commodores’ spring game Saturday, I feel pretty confident about the answer to a major question heading into the season.
Riley Neal is going to be the Commodores’ starting quarterback in 2019.
The Ball State graduate transfer is competing with redshirt junior Deuce Wallace, who was suspended for all of 2018 because of a violation of school policy. And go figure that Wallace was sidelined for Saturday’s scrimmage because of a partial tear in his lat muscle, which had him temporarily in a sling (he could be back to close spring came next week, according to Derek Mason).
Have I ever seen Wallace play a down of football? Nope. Am I still convinced that it’ll be Neal and not Wallace who gets the starting job? Yep.
You see, the sample size of Neal is significant. Someone who appeared in 34 career games is a little different than a guy with 22 career pass attempts. And while Wallace didn’t have a chance to show the physical and mental progress he said he made, Neal looked like what Vanderbilt needs right now.
The Commodores have something that they usually don’t. That is, a trio of starting skill players that are All-SEC caliber players. Ke’Shawn Vaughn was arguably the conference’s best back in the second half of 2018 while Kalija Lipscomb was in the top 5 among SEC receivers in catches, yards and touchdown catches, and tight end Jared Pinkney was a second-team All-SEC selection as a junior.
They are being labeled as Vanderbilt’s “Big 3.” That means they’ll be at the top of every scouting report. It’ll be unlike last spring when Kyle Shurmur seemed like the only safe bet in an offense with skill player questions. Now, the job of whoever succeeds Vanderbilt’s all-time passing yards leader will be simple.
Get the ball to the Big 3 and let them do their thing. Neal is going to be the best guy to do that.
You can tell from the way the ball gets out of his hand that Neal is a passer. He won’t have the learning curve of Wallace, who is a dual-threat guy. And make no mistake. Neal can move, too. He calls himself a pocket passer, but he showed Saturday and at Ball State that he can make throws outside of the pocket. That’s something that even Shurmur admitted he lacked.
There’s another thing that will give Neal the obvious edge to win the starting job. There shouldn’t be any concerns about him making the step up from the MAC to the SEC.
Why? He has half a season worth of experience against Power 5 teams. His first career college game was as a true freshman at Texas A&M, which he entered in relief and out-performed the starter (some guy named Kyler Murray was also a true freshman who came on in relief for the Aggies that day).
Tiger Nation couldn't be any prouder! Riley Neal is the real deal! Chirp Chirp! pic.twitter.com/nEl9mhQO8K
— Yorktown Athletics (@YHSAthletics) September 13, 2015
Neal’s first career start came a couple weeks later on the road against a 10-win Northwestern team. He has 3 years worth of starts, he’s a career 60 percent passer and he’s 6-5, 220 pounds. In other words, the guy should be comfortable making reads, making high-percentage throws and he can take a hit or 2.
I don’t know if that’s the case for Wallace. Vanderbilt coaches don’t even know if that’s the case for Wallace.
New offensive coordinator Gerry Gdowski said he wants to build the system around the personnel and not the other way around. That suggests Neal will be the obvious favorite for the job. With talented skill players and an inexperienced defense, there will be pressure on the offense to be even better than last year’s group, which gained the second-most yards in program history.
Sure, Neal comes with question marks of his own. We don’t know what he’s capable of with future NFL Draft picks to give the ball to. Wallace is more mobile — SEC Network Jordan Rodgers admitted that Neal was quicker outside of the pocket than he expected — and has more familiarity with the coaching staff and offense. That’s still a work in progress for Neal, who threw it at the back of Jamauri Wakefield on a wheel route during Saturday’s scrimmage.
But there were also moments when it looked like Neal was perfectly comfortable in the offense, like when he started the day with a perfect fade route to Lipscomb to move the chains. Vanderbilt fans wouldn’t mind seeing that happen a few more times this fall.
Publicly, Mason might continue to declare that a quarterback room that started spring camp with 6 candidates is still up for grabs. Maybe it is and this will remain a true competition up until the Commodores’ season opener against Georgia. Saturday gave us the impression that the coaching staff would prefer Neal and Wallace get most of the reps with the first-stringers because both need as much time as possible.
Replacing Shurmur won’t be easy. That much seems clear. There’s no guarantee that even with Vanderbilt’s weapons that the offense takes another step forward (Vaughn said the goal is 50 points a game, which nobody in college football did last year).
But this job is Neal’s to lose. Saturday gave us all the confirmation needed to support that notion.