NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Derek Mason hasn’t overseen a true quarterback competition since his second season at Vanderbilt in 2015.
This spring, as Mason looks for a replacement for the departed Kyle Shurmur, the Commodores’ head coach is in no rush to name a new starter.
“It’s all about going down to the wire and figuring it out,” Mason said. “People think you want to make a decision — they’re going to make the decision.”
Vanderbilt opened up spring practice on Wednesday with five scholarship quarterbacks on its roster. Juniors Mo Hasan and Deuce Wallace and redshirt freshman Allan Walters join early enrollee freshman Jamil Muhammad and graduate transfer Riley Neal in competing to replace Shurmur, the program’s all-time leading passer. Hasan and Wallace are the only two quarterbacks with playing experience in a Vanderbilt uniform, but Neal arrives having served as a three-year starter at Ball State.
The junior Wallace boasts perhaps the most experience in Vanderbilt’s offense. He backed up Shurmur in 2016 and ’17, and though he missed the entire 2018 season, Wallace returned during the Commodores’ bowl prep in December. Now Wallace, along with the grad student Neal, is one of the elder statesmen of Vanderbilt quarterbacks.
“For me, it’s a completely different situation,” Wallace said. “Last year we had two quarterbacks. Now we have [five]. We have some great players in the quarterback room. With that many people, you’ve got to make your reps count.”
Wallace did not see action as a true freshman in 2016, but he played in four games in 2017, completing career highs of five completions for 55 yards in a win over Ole Miss. The redshirt junior will garner much of the competition spotlight opposite Neal, who brings a bevy of game experience to his one season at Vanderbilt. Neal started 32 games for the Cardinals and threw for 7,393 yards as a dual-threat passer.
But Mason was quick to note Neal’s expected adjustment to the SEC. This week, Vanderbilt’s coach delivered an anecdote from Neal’s first practice. The quarterback took a snap and rolled out of the pocket as defensive lineman Dayo Odeyingbo closed in from the edge. Dayo’s speed prevented Neal from making the play, a prime example of the learning curve for the quarterback this spring.
“Riley hasn’t done it here. He’s done it at Ball State,” Mason said. “I think the experience gives him a leg-up because he understands football, but SEC football is a little different. For him, he’s got to get used to the pace.”
Neal said he is excited to compete for the starting job, but he knows nothing is guaranteed.
“I’m just trying to learn the offense and get acquainted with the guys here,” Neal said. “It’s just coming out and working every day.”
Mason’s eventual selection at quarterback will have the luxury of three returning playmakers in wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb, tight end Jared Pinkney and running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn. Mason likewise assured continuity with his offense by promoting quarterbacks coach Gerry Gdowski to offensive coordinator. Still, the Dores will have to replace key pieces along the offensive line, as guard Egidio DellaRipa, center Bruno Reagan and tackle Justin Skule all graduated.
Just don’t expect Vanderbilt’s quarterback competition to end anytime soon. That’s by design, said Mason.
“I’m going to watch practice, then we’re going to bring it back to fall camp, and then I think you make a decision based on the production of what guys have done,” Mason said. “I don’t think you go any sooner than that. What you do then is you take the edge off of a competition. I want this competition to go as long as it can. This is going to be about competing. The best man’s going to win.”
Zac Ellis is the Writer and Digital Media Editor for Vanderbilt Athletics.