Vandy Senior Poses Threat To Arkansas

FAYETTEVILLE -- There's no telling how many times Vanderbilt quarterback Jay Cutler gets kidded about being from Santa Claus, Ind.

Or ...

That Cutler actually grew up in the Christmas Village subdivision of the small, southern Indiana hamlet.

Ironically ...

This season, Cutler could be playing in much bigger cities on Sundays-- all of them have NFL franchises where a Christmas present is equal to a trip to the playoffs -- instead of playing in a few cities under 100,000 in the Southeastern Conference on Saturdays this season.

Instead, he returned for his senior season.

Vandy coach Bobby Johnson was giddy about it, but not totally surprised.

"Yeah, I'm pretty happy about it," Johnson said. "We're very happy. That just shows you the type of character he has, wanting to help his team out, instead of being selfish.

"You know, we sat down and talked, Jay and myself. You know, wanted to know if he was going to be completely comfortable with it. He did a good job of exploring his opportunity in the NFL.

"When it was all said and done, looking at all the evidence, I think, listening to his heart a little bit ... whether to come back to see if he could come back and get this program on a winning track.

"So, when he did that, I knew there wouldn't be any second guessing. Sometimes a lot of them will do that. They'll decide, not check out all the opportunities, but he knew exactly what he was looking at. Knew exactly what he was going to get when he came back."

What he got was a team which has struggled in the three years he's been there -- by the way, he's started 35 straight games, the most of any SEC quarterback -- when he made that final decision to return.

That was frightening news for SEC opponents, simply because he's perhaps the best quarterback in the league.

Don't believe it?

Look at his career numbers coming into this season. One glimpse should convince anyone with doubts to shut his or her statistical mouth.

Cutler, a 6-foot-4, 225 pounder, had rushed for 1,041 career yards. He had passed for 5,624 yards and 38 touchdowns.

He started adding to the arithmetic last Thursday night, completing 25 of 36 passes for 276 yards in a 24-20 come-from-behind win against Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, N.C.

And oh by the way, Cutler led the Commodores in rushing, carrying 10 times for 89 yards.

That's a scary thought and something Arkansas will have to deal with when Vandy meets the Hogs at 6 p.m. Saturday in Reynolds Razorback Stadium in the SEC opener for both schools.

Razorbacks first-year defensive coordinator Reggie Herring, for one, isn't relishing the thought of playing against Cutler.

"He makes plays when there's not things there; he makes it happen," Herring said. "He can run, he can scramble. He can knock guys off of him.

"He can break and shake sacks.

"When he doesn't have the ball in his hands, he's looking around trying to hit somebody. The guy, really, is a complete package as far as a quarterback goes. He's got tremendous velocity on the ball and really great accuracy."

Realistically, he's almost had to be, playing on a team which has gone only 2-22 in SEC games the past three years.

"It's been tough," Cutler said. "(Last year) we got off to a rough start. We lost five of our first six games. We have to learn how to close the deal and that comes from believing in your teammates and yourself."

So, what's it going to take to get over the hump?

"We are just going to take things one game at a time," Cutler said. "If it comes down to me leading them in the fourth quarter and putting the ball in my hands, I'll take my chances."

That's exactly what happened in the season opener as Vandy, guided by the steady and experienced hand of Cutler, scored the winning touchdown with 1 minute, 48 seconds left in the game.

Even before the season began, Cutler said he was optimistic about Vanderbilt's fresh coat of confidence. "Yeah, we are excited about playing this season," he said. "We are going to take every game one at a time. We lost some guys last year but we have replaced them with guys that are fired up about playing. That is something we haven't had in the past at Vanderbilt.

"I think this group is ready to go out and compete."

And it all starts with Cutler, who's gotten better and better with each passing season. As a freshman, he hit 48.6 percent of his passes. As a sophomore, that percentage improved to 57.2, and last year he connected on 61.0 percent of his passes.

Those certainly are numbers to be proud of, but Cutler said he doesn't have time to think about it now.

"I'm sure when I leave I will look back, and be proud of my accomplishments," he said. "Right now, though, I'm concentrating on the job at hand. I want to improve myself and the team.

"It has been an honor and I hope to live up to the challenge."
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