Vanderbilt Searches For Answers Minus Cutler

HOOVER, Ala. — It's hard to see 5-6 as being a stellar year for any college football program. Vanderbilt is not any college football program.

Disappointing losses to Middle Tennessee State to start and Kentucky to end a six-game losing streak ended the Commodores bowl hopes last season, and Jay Cutler's departure to the NFL will make it tough for Vanderbilt to even repeat its success of last season, when it started 4-0.

Sophomore Chris Nickson, redshirt freshman MacKenzi Adams and junior Richard Kovalcheck are vying for the job as Cutler's replacement.

"They're not going to be the same as he was right when he was playing in the Tennessee game," said Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson. "As coaches, we've got to be aware of that. We've got to be conscious of it. We've got to be as patient as we can. It's up to us to develop those guys and use the talents that they have, not the talents that Jay Cutler had."

Kovalcheck's story is the most intriguing. He took advantage of a new NCAA rule allowing players who have graduated to transfer without having to sit out a year.

Nickson is the leader heading into preseason camp.

"Even though he didn't get to play a lot, I think he learned a lot last year," Johnson said. "He saw what Jay was doing in the last part of every game that we won or had a chance to win. All that's very important."

Whichever quarterback wins the job will be tested quickly.

After being initially scheduled to open the season in Nashville against Middle Tennessee State, the Commodores will now travel to Michigan to play the Wolverines in a nationally televised season opener.

"Michigan, Alabama, both away, then come back and play Arkansas," Johnson said. "I don't know if any team has a tougher opening three games than we do. It's certainly going to tell us a lot about our football team.

"It's going to tell us about our quarterback situation. Certainly going to be a challenge."

Vanderbilt's players are excited about the big opportunity to start the season.

"I am so excited about playing Michigan the first game," offensive tackle Brian Stamper said. "It was amazing to see how excited the team was when we found out. We have all been training hard over the summer. We are ready to get started with the season."

Johnson also expects his quarterbacks to run a bit more.

"Chris Nickson, MacKenzi Adams are both active, athletic quarterbacks," he said. "If they're in the football game, we have to take advantage of their athleticism and put a little pressure on the defense."

Despite the uncertainty at quarterback, Cutler's favorite target from last season returns in Earl Bennett, who had 79 catches for 876 yards and nine touchdowns as a freshman.

"If people are going to double-team Earl, we've got an opportunity to throw it to (Marlon White and George Smith)," Johnson said. "Those guys I think are probably our deepest position really. ... We've got to be creative in getting Earl the ball, try to figure out ways.

"We can't just let people double-team him, get up there and run bump-and-run coverage."

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