Is there life after Cutler?

Three years ago Tennessee recruiters tried to convince San Diego native Richard Kovalcheck to play his college football in the Southeastern Conference. They failed, but Kovalcheck may wind up playing in the SEC this fall anyway.

Taking advantage of a new NCAA rule granting immediate eligibility to grad-student transfers, Kovalcheck switched from Arizona to Vanderbilt two months ago. There's a good chance he'll be the Commodores' starting quarterback this fall, based on a comment Vandy head coach Bobby Johnson made at the recent SEC Media Days in Birmingham.

"We've got to find out what Richard does best," Johnson said, "and tailor our offense around that."

You don't tailor your offense around a second-team quarterback, do you?

Kovalcheck's greatest attribute is experience. He started nearly a dozen games at Arizona in 2004 and 2005 before losing the first-team QB job to a freshman midway through last season.

"Richard Kovalcheck started 11 games in two years for Arizona," Johnson said, "and I think eight games were against top-25 teams."

Kovalcheck's chief competition for Vandy's QB job, Chris Nickson, has virtually no college experience. Nickson completed just 1 of 3 passes as Cutler's backup in 2005. The other quarterback candidate, McKenzi Adams, appears to be a real long shot.

Nickson's edge is that he's a running threat, having carried 15 times for 49 yards in 2005. That makes him a more natural fit for Vandy's ground-oriented attack than Kovalcheck.

"Chris Nickson was our quarterback in spring, and we didn't change the offense that much," Johnson noted. "We are going to take advantage of his athleticism and his ability to run the football. He's going to put pressure on some defenses doing that but Chris can throw the ball, too."

Another advantage Nickson has over Kovalcheck is his familiarity with Vanderbilt's offense.

"Chris was on the sideline last year, listening to every call that went in," Johnson noted. "He was watching how Jay handled himself and how he worked through some problems."

Still, the Vandy coach believes Kovalcheck will pick up the Commodore offense quickly enough to manage the attack capably.

"He had a 3.66 (grade-point average) at Arizona, so he's a pretty smart guy," Johnson said. "And he's been accepted for graduate school at Vanderbilt. Plus, he's out there every day throwing with Chris Nickson and McKenzi Adams, our other two quarterbacks.

"The receivers are helping him out. The offensive line is trying to teach him the pass protections and the backs' routes. I think he's a pretty quick study, and I don't think he'll be left behind."

Whether Vanderbilt's 2006 quarterback is Kovalcheck, Nickson or Adams, he won't be another Jay Cutler. Then again, Johnson doesn't expect him to be.

"Our guys have a lot of confidence in the quarterbacks we've got," the coach said. "It's up to us to develop those guys and use the talents they have – not the talents Jay Cutler had – to work within our offense and see if we can make them successful."

Since the Commodores will be weaker at QB than they were last year, Johnson is hopeful they can pick up the slack by being stronger at the other offensive positions.

"We have to get some help from the other players," the coach said. "Our running backs are going to have to step up. We have to get the ball to Earl Bennett, George Smith and Marlon White at wide receiver. The onus is not just on our quarterbacks. It's on the whole team."


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