HUNTER: Why Riley Neal should be Vanderbilt’s QB1

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HUNTER: Why Riley Neal should be Vanderbilt’s QB1

Photo by: The Tennessean

Photo by: The Tennessean

Photo by: The Tennessean

Photo by: The Tennessean

Henry Hunter, Author

As the Vanderbilt Commodores prepare to host third ranked Georgia in their season opener on Saturday evening, fans are anxious to find out whom Coach Mason will start at quarterback. Following the departure of four-year starter Kyle Shurmur, arguably the best quarterback in Vanderbilt history, a quarterback battle has been unfolding between Junior quarterback Deuce Wallace and Ball State graduate transfer Riley Neal. In typical Coach Mason fashion, he has refused to give any indication as to which direction he is headed: “We’re going to take it up to kickoff. These guys have done a great job. Both of these guys have done a great job.” 

There has been some speculation that Wallace and Neal would split duties on Saturday, which violates the old adage that “If you play two quarterbacks, you have none.” Wallace and Neal have split practice reps and played in closed-door scrimmages throughout the summer, meaning they each have a massive body of work to allow the coaching staff to make a decision. Georgia is one of the best teams in the country; the Georgia game should not be used as a glorified extended tryout. With returning stars and eventual NFL draft picks Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Jared Pinckney, and Kalija Lipscomb at the skill positions, the Commodores have one of the most talented skill position arsenals in the SEC. These players need to grow with a Quarterback starting on Saturday. That progress cannot be stalled by an ongoing quarterback battle. 

This quarterback battle must have been close, otherwise Mason would not have waited to name a starter. However, I think the best decision for Vanderbilt’s future is for Neal to start. Neal was a three year starter at Ball State, and while the MAC is certainly a step below the SEC, Wallace has only 22 career passing attempts and sat out last season after being suspended for a violation of university policy. At 6’6 and 225 pounds, Neal has a stronger frame that will allow him to withstand the physical toll of being an SEC quarterback, a toll that will likely be especially heavy given Vanderbilt’s relative inexperience along the offensive line. 

But the main reason I think Neal should be named the starter has little to do with a belief that Neal is superior to Wallace. Instead, my reasoning has more to do with the long term benefit: starting Neal could have a serious impact on Vanderbilt’s recruiting. During the Mason era, Vanderbilt has consistently been at the bottom of the SEC in recruiting rankings. Given Vanderbilt’s inadequate facilities, these recruiting shortcomings are no fault of Mason’s. However, one area in which Mason has more success is in the transfer portal. Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who started his collegiate career at Illinois and then recently recruited Cameron Watkins to transfer to Vanderbilt, is a shining example of the fruits of investing in the transfer portal. Riley Neal is the first quarterback that has transferred to Vanderbilt during the Mason era, but recently, quarterbacks have shown a tendency to be quick to leave when unhappy with their situations.

Georgia quarterback Jake Fromm beat out two different quarterbacks–the highly ranked Jacob Eason and Justin Fields–who both decided to transfer from Georgia. Vanderbilt’s track record shows very little hope of being able to recruit a 5-star quarterback out of high school, but the transfer market provides less competition. Players in the portal are risking the security of a four year school in hopes of finding a team that provides them a strong opportunity to get ample playing time; Eason or Fields would have walked onto West End and immediately brought more hype to the football team than anyone since Jay Cutler. Right now, the transfer portal is already loaded with talented quarterbacks looking for a home for the 2020 season and more quarterbacks will join the portal, as players like Jalen Hurts and Kelly Bryant decided to transfer after losing their starting jobs midway through the season last year. 

To be competitive in recruiting these players, it would be beneficial for Vanderbilt to start Riley Neal. While he is not as highly touted as the players I’ve mentioned, it will serve Mason well to have the track record as being a home for transfers. Baker Mayfield won a Heisman after transferring. Jalen Hurts won a national championship game before transferring. These are the kinds of program-changing talents that fall through the cracks at their first destinations. Betting on Neal and having a strong season around him could be the gateway to Vanderbilt emerging as an attractive candidate for the next great transfer. 

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