Yes, Vandy fans, there is a Santa Claus

The town of Santa Claus, Indiana delivered a magnificent present to Vanderbilt fans two years ago in the person of fleet-footed quarterback Jay Cutler. But it hasn't always been an easy road for Cutler... the sophomore captain says there was a time not so long ago when he was considering transferring to another school.

Shortly after Jay Cutler's teammates elected him one of three team captains last spring, a local newspaper reporter approached Bobby Johnson with a question: "What message is it sending when the team elects a guy as captain who got into some off-field trouble last season?"

Johnson bristled at the question. "It says they have a lot of confidence in Jay, that's what it says," he retorted. "Number one, all of that was way overblown by the media.

"And number two, they know Jay. They're with him every day. They know how much hard work he's put in in the offseason. It's a tremendous honor for Jay to be selected by his teammates when he's only a sophomore."

If any player appears ready to put past disappointments behind him in 2003, it's the 6-foot-4, 222-pound quarterback from Santa Claus, Ind. After an alleged incident of late-night vandalism last October involving an on-campus emergency phone, Cutler was suspended for one game and performed community service. The incident was a troubling one for fans, who were forced to read about the incident in The Tennessean almost daily for weeks after it came to light.

"It was a tough situation for him," said Johnson at SEC Media Days. "Most of the charges were dropped, because they weren't true. It was tough to see your name in the paper every day, saying you were accused of doing that and that and that, and knowing you didn't do it.

"But I was really pleased with the way he handled that, and I think it made him appreciate his role on the team a lot better, and the chance to play."

Though Cutler refused to talk to the media about the incident at the time, he talks openly about it today.

"It wasn't fun at all," recalls Cutler. "About three fourths of the stuff wasn't true. It got blown way out of proportion. But that comes with it.

"I definitely regret that experience, but I did learn from it. It made me a better person and a better player. It made me realize how many people count on me."


When Cutler committed to Vanderbilt in January of 2001, it came as a bit of a surprise to some fans. Woody Widenhofer had already accepted a commitment from David Koral, a record-setting quarterback from California who figured to be the Commodores' quarterback of the future. Cutler's name, by contrast, was not well-known among recruiting junkies.

But no one who had witnessed Cutler lead Heritage Hills High School to a 15-0 record and a state championship in 2000 doubted that he possessed the ability to play in college. In the championship game at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, Cutler scored the game-winning TD himself on a trick play.

"We had four wides split out to the right, and I threw it to one of our receivers," Cutler remembers. "He threw it back to me, and I walked in for the game-winner. It was something I'll never forget."

Among those who scouted Cutler that day was Vanderbilt quarterbacks coach Jeff Rutledge, who did a textbook recruiting job. Purdue, Illinois, Indiana, Duke and Cincinnati had all offered Cutler a scholarship, but Vanderbilt was the only SEC school to offer him. Cutler was ultimately won over by Rutledge, who promised him a chance to win the quarterback job.

Jay Cutler"In high school I went both ways," Cutler said. "I was recruited as a defensive back by quite a few schools. Purdue didn't want me to play quarterback.

"Vanderbilt took a chance on me late in the game. I decided to come take a visit down here, and I'm glad I did. I told them the only way I would come there is if I got a legit shot at quarterback, and they gave that to me."

Greg Zolman was already entrenched as Vanderbilt's starting quarterback for 2001, and Widenhofer told Cutler he might have a chance to see action more quickly if he'd be willing to switch to defensive back. Cutler would have none of it.

"I told him I really didn't want to," said Cutler. "I definitely wanted to play quarterback. I thought that was the best position for me." Knowing Zolman would graduate that year, Cutler decided to redshirt and bide his time.

But then came an unexpected twist. When Woody Widenhofer was fired after a disastrous 2-9 2001 season, a disillusioned Cutler and a number of his fellow freshmen thought strongly about transferring out, he says now.

"[Widenhofer's staff] all left in the middle of December [of 2001]. We were coachless there for quite a while. I think a lot of guys thought about leaving, and looked into it.

"But we stuck together. We're a tight class. We knew we had some things to get done at Vanderbilt. We knew if we stuck together, we could make some things happen."

Enter Bobby Johnson. After observing Cutler and Benji Walker for the first time in 2002 spring practice, Johnson remarked that both were ideally gifted for the offense he and Offensive Coordinator Ted Cain hoped to install. Cutler entered fall camp in 2002 as number two on the depth chart behind Walker, a local favorite. For three intense weeks the two waged an intense war for the starting nod.

On the Monday before the 2002 opener against Georgia Tech, Johnson sent shock waves around the SEC when he announced that the redshirt freshman had won the job over Walker, a fourth-year junior.

Some critics may have questioned Johnson's judgment a few days later when the Yellow Jackets undressed Vandy, 45-3. "It was a disaster," remembers Cutler of his first start, which came before a hostile crowd.

But the very next week, fans at Vanderbilt stadium caught a glimpse of Cutler's considerable gifts, as the young quarterback ran for three scores and threw for two more in a win over Furman. In a solid freshman season, Cutler seemed to improve from week to week in terms of his decision-making. He set a freshman school record for all-purpose yardage with 1,826 yards, and had he not missed the Tennessee game with an injury, would almost certainly have set freshman records for completions and passing yards.


At last, there are no doubts as to who will take the first snap when the Commodores open at home against Ole Miss on Aug. 30. It's now Jay Cutler's team, and there's little doubt that much of Vandy's success in 2003 rests on No. 6's ability to stay healthy and lead the team at quarterback.

The dawn of the 2003 season finds Cutler, the Super Soph from Santa Claus, with lofty expectations for himself and his team.

"We're definitely thinking bowl game this year," he says. "But we've got to get the first one first. That Ole Miss game is going to make us or break us. If we can get that one under our belts, I think we have a good shot."

Cutler believes his class-- the class that entered Vanderbilt in the fall of 2001, a class now entering its third year on campus-- is a special class in terms of its cohesiveness and leadership.

"We clicked from the get-go," he says. "We hang out together. We do everything together. We're the best of friends, and most of us are in the same classes. We talk all the time about winning games and changing this program. I think our class is going to lead Vanderbilt in the right direction before we're all done." Top Stories