Report card on Riley Neal after three games

How has the graduate transfer fared in his first few weeks? We give him his first grades at Vanderbilt.

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Report card on Riley Neal after three games

Vanderbilt falls to LSU 66-38 on September 21, 2019. Photo by Brent Szklaruk

Vanderbilt falls to LSU 66-38 on September 21, 2019. Photo by Brent Szklaruk

Brent Szklaruk

Vanderbilt falls to LSU 66-38 on September 21, 2019. Photo by Brent Szklaruk

Brent Szklaruk

Brent Szklaruk

Vanderbilt falls to LSU 66-38 on September 21, 2019. Photo by Brent Szklaruk

Justin Hershey, Staff Writer

With a quarter of his Vanderbilt career already over, starting quarterback Riley Neal has quickly gotten a taste for the rigors of SEC football. The former Ball State quarterback has been thrown to the wolves in clashes with Georgia and LSU and a road trip to Purdue in between.

Throughout training camp, the quarterback battle between Neal and redshirt junior Deuce Wallace was heavily followed by Commodore fans everywhere. Neal was finally given the job and has been up and down thus far. In three games, he has completed 58 percent of his passes for 669 yards to go along with three touchdowns and two interceptions. These numbers put him on track to finish the season with nearly 2,700 yards and 12 touchdowns, albeit with easier games on the horizon.

However, after three tough losses to start the season, Commodore fans are in search of answers. And when the going gets tough, the quarterback is scrutinized the most. So, it is time to evaluate Neal’s performance so far and see where he can improve. 

Off the field, Vanderbilt students are in the midst of their first round of midterms, so here’s Riley Neal’s on-field midterm report.

Strengths:

Scrambling Ability

One element that Vanderbilt’s offense has not featured in quite some time is a quarterback who can scramble. While his rushing numbers are not impressive on paper due to sacks, Neal has shown an ability to extend drives with his feet. He has had runs of over 10 yards in two of three games and has accounted for three first down conversions using his legs. In his four years at Ball State, Neal accumulated over 1,300 rushing yards, so hopefully his mobility can continue to add a new dimension to the Commodore offense.

Coach Mason has taken advantage of Neal’s scrambling ability by utilizing the read option. This past week against LSU, Neal and running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn ran several read option plays, and Neal showed the ability to choose the correct read on both of Vaughn’s 40+ yard runs.

Decision Making

One of the biggest question marks throughout training camp was whether Neal would be able to grasp the playbook quickly and make smart decisions. Overall, his decision making has been impressive and few miscommunications have occurred between him and his receivers.

He has only thrown two interceptions despite playing two of the best defenses in the country. In addition, he has been able to find his top targets, wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb and tight end Jared Pinkney, 25 times. The duo have combined to catch almost half of Neal’s total passing yards.

Furthermore, Neal has only taken eight sacks in three games. The figure looks even more impressive considering that his inexperienced offensive line has faced two of the SEC’s toughest defenses. It shows that he has been getting the ball out of his hands and to open receivers quickly or opting to throw the ball away if his receivers are covered.

Weaknesses:

Lack of Downfield Throws

It is evident that the Vanderbilt coaching staff is confident in Neal’s ability to throw accurate short passes. The simple out route and tight end screen have been staples in Vanderbilt’s offense this season due to their high probability of a completion.

However, the sheer number of short passes has made the Vanderbilt offense rather predictable and one-dimensional. Neal is averaging only 7.4 yards per pass attempt, good for 74th in the country. Only five of his 53 completions have gone for over 30 yards, which has allowed defenses to press the Commodore receivers at the line of scrimmage and not fear a long pass over the middle of the field.

Although short routes can be effective, players like tight end Jared Pinkney thrive in the downfield passing game. Last season, Pinkney averaged 16 yards per catch. This year, that number has dropped to 13 yards per catch. It would be a crime to not get the best out of Pinkney in his senior season. And to do so, Neal must be willing to take more shots downfield and over the middle.

Accuracy

While Neal throws a beautiful ball and has plenty of arm strength, at times he has severely underthrown receivers. Neal missed multiple receivers on out routes this past weekend, and on two shots downfield, he underthrew Kalija Lipscomb. On one occasion, his underthrow led to an interception.

He is currently completing only 58 percent of his passes. And with the shorter routes that he has typically relied upon, this percentage looks even worse. During his best season at Ball State, Neal had nearly a 62 percent completion percentage while throwing a similar style of passes. By completing more short throws, he can help the offense put together long drives.

One way Neal can quickly improve is by trying not to do too much. At times, it has looked like he is trying to gently place the ball perfectly for his receivers. But, with talented playmakers like Lipscomb and Pinkney, he does not need to deliver the perfect pass every time. By simply getting the ball up in the air past defenders, Neal can give his receivers a chance at making big plays. Neal has to trust himself to float the ball and let his guys go up and get it.

Overall Trend: Positive

While Neal has room to improve, Vanderbilt’s 0-3 start is certainly not all on him. He’s currently playing behind an injured offensive line, and the defense hasn’t helped him out by allowing opponents to score an average of 46 points per game.

But as he has become increasingly comfortable in the black and gold, he has shown improvement. To some extent, Neal has delivered on what the coaches have asked of him. He has gotten the ball to his playmakers even though he has had to rely on shorter, easier throws because of his injury-riddled offensive line. But in order to make a bowl game, the Commodores are going to have to come up with six wins in their last nine games. And to win six out of nine, it is essential that Neal elevate his play.

This week, he will get the chance to battle an old MAC foe in Northern Illinois, a team he is 0-4 against in his career. He should be comfortable against the Huskies and hopefully, after a solid week of practice, Neal can lead the Commodores to their first win on Saturday.

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