Film Room: Is AJ Swann the Best Freshman QB in the Country?

An inside look at Vanderbilt’s freshman phenom

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Vanderbilt Athletics

AJ Swann playing against Ole Miss on Oct. 8, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics)

Brandon Karp, Lead Sports Analyst

AJ Swann is well on his way to having the greatest true freshman season of any Vanderbilt quarterback ever. The precocious signal caller, recently named a Midseason Freshman All-American by 247 Sports, is already the fourth most prolific freshman passer in school history after only four starts (953 yards). Even more impressive, Swann is one of only two quarterbacks in all of Division 1 Football with over 100 pass attempts and no interceptions. And if all that wasn’t enough already, Swann is 37th in the nation in QB rating, ahead of several of his highly touted SEC peers including Will Levis and Anthony Richardson.

For all the individual success that Swann has had this season, Vanderbilt continues to be dominated by top tier competition in a manner that does not reflect an improvement at the most important position on the field. Against Alabama and Georgia, Swann completed only 55% of his passes for a combined 300 yards in two games. The Commodores lost those two games by a combined score of 110-3. Last season, Vanderbilt was spared a matchup with Alabama, but still lost to Georgia 62-0. Clearly, Swann can play. But one glaring question remains: How can such a decisive improvement at quarterback lead to so little improvement in the actual outcome of games?

The answer lies between areas that Swann can improve in and the absurd level of competition he’s had to face in recent weeks. Any true freshman is going to need time to adapt to playing against the NFL-caliber athletes on the defenses of Alabama and Georgia. Let’s take a look at some areas where Swann can get better, before highlighting some of the strengths that have led to his eye-popping start.

Areas for improvement

 Unfortunately for Swann, Vanderbilt’s offensive line struggles to provide consistent protection, putting huge pressure on the young quarterback to have perfect awareness in the pocket.  Against Alabama and Georgia, Swann’s occasional lapses in pocket presence led to a few mistakes that set the Commodores back. 

On the first play against the Bulldogs, Swann commits intentional grounding just before being flattened by elite Georgia linebacker Nolan Smith. This crucial mistake under pressure moved Vanderbilt out of field goal range and effectively terminated the team’s only opportunity to score in the game. When the pocket begins to collapse in the next play, Swann rushes and misses a throw he usually drills to Ray Davis. By the time Vanderbilt is down 34-0, Swann is understandably worn down, and it is apparent in his execution. As the pocket collapses, Swann fails to shift up towards open space and instead slides further back. The resulting back-foot throw falls way short of the intended receiver, and easily would have been a pick six if not for an egregious drop by the Georgia defender. 

Struggling to maintain perfect pocket presence while being chased by NFL-caliber defensive lineman is an area any fledgling quarterback would struggle with and should be resolved with experience and an offensive line that hopefully improves in the coming seasons. One thing that Swann can improve with right away, however, is an overreliance on his first option on passing plays. 

The next play is designed to get the ball in the hands of Jayden McGowan. Georgia’s defense stays home on McGowan, but Swann doesn’t consider any other options and forces a dangerous throw towards his first read. Against Alabama, Swann stares down Will Sheppard from the second he takes the snap. Sheppard does not have the time to create adequate separation, so Swann’s precarious throw is nearly intercepted by the Alabama defender. The same pattern is evident on the ensuing play, which is designed to get the ball into the hands of Sheppard. This one is less about Swann’s decision to throw to Sheppard (which the play clearly calls for) and more about the decision to throw the ball at all when the receiver is completely locked up.

Alabama and Georgia exposed these two slight weaknesses in Swann’s game right now. But outside of a few mistakes, Swann has been extremely impressive against some of the best defenses in all of college football. 

Freshman phenom

 

From the moment Swann stepped on the field against No. 21 Wake Forest, he showed a level of preparation and poise that foreshadowed his breakout season. The thing that jumped out right away to me was his incredible timing and connection with his receivers, especially touchdown-machine Sheppard. Swann’s first career passing touchdown is a perfectly timed, perfectly thrown ball placed where only Sheppard can reach it. In his first career start against NIU, Swann continued to flex his connection with Sheppard out of the play action, hitting his receiver in stride on the slant for an easy breakaway touchdown. 

Timing and chemistry with wide receivers are essential qualities for any effective quarterback, but they can’t be relied on as the only means to generate a passing offense. What distinguishes Swann as a budding superstar is his extreme accuracy—a quality that simply cannot be taught. The next throw is one of my favorites from Swann all season. On third-and-7 against Ole Miss’s 19-sack defense, Swann shows excellent pocket presence before throwing a dime to a tightly-covered Sheppard for a huge first down. 

Few moments better exemplify Swann’s absurd accuracy than his most famous play of the season, a fourth-down touchdown to Ray Davis that sparked Vanderbilt’s comeback against Northern Illinois. In a turn of events straight out of a Patrick Mahomes highlight tape, Swann eluded two NIU defenders to unleash a glorious sideline bomb 15 yards behind the line of scrimmage, all while backpeddaling in the opposite direction of the goal line. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I don’t believe Vanderbilt has had a quarterback with the right combination of arm strength and athleticism to make that play since Jay Cutler.   

It’s not just flashy, highlight-reel plays that Swann does well. He also has the comfort and short-range accuracy to make the little plays that move an offense down the field. The next two throws from Swann look almost effortless, but that’s only because he is so composed while precisely placing the ball exactly where the skill player needs to be. 

Vanderbilt fans have plenty of reason to be excited now that the brutal Alabama-Ole Miss- Georgia stretch is over. With a competent, turnover-averse quarterback under center and two of the most electric weapons in the SEC in Will Sheppard and McGowan, Vanderbilt’s offense has the chance to take off towards the end of the season. This week’s matchup with Missouri will be a pivotal opportunity for the Commodores to show that they have learned from the mistakes of their last three losses. If the Commodores want to beat the Tigers and prove there has been real progress since the beginning of the Clark Lea era, it’ll take another huge showing from Swann. 

Vanderbilt will take on Missouri at 3 p.m. CDT on Saturday, Oct. 22, at Faurot Field in Columbia.