Vanderbilt football: Should Mike Wright or AJ Swann be QB1? Here are the arguments.
Vanderbilt football didn't expect a quarterback battle this early. Just three games into the season, freshman AJ Swann replaced Mike Wright and led two touchdown drives after Wright threw for just 35 yards.
Vanderbilt coach Clark Lea isn't making this a controversy yet. Lea said Tuesday that Wright would be the starter against Northern Illinois and that he didn't plan to play Swann because playing two quarterbacks "(isn't) really a formula we want to deploy."
It remains to be seen whether that will be the right choice as the Commodores (2-1) head to DeKalb. Here are the pros and cons of playing each quarterback:
Mike Wright is the team's leader
It's abundantly clear that Wright is the emotional leader of the team. It's been clear since he was named the starter at SEC Media Days. Even when he performs poorly, his teammates — including his co-captains — invariably bring up what his leadership means to the team. That's not nothing.
For a team engaged in the kind of rebuild Vanderbilt is, it's important to have a leader at quarterback who can keep the team engaged and focused through wins and losses. Wright can do that. While Swann certainly could come to fill that role in time, it's probably too much to ask of a freshman in his first few weeks of college football.
AJ Swann has a better arm and a higher ceiling
Swann has the most upside of any quarterback on the team. He has the type of arm that could wind up being special in time, even if he was mistake-prone in his preseason looks.
Whether he's the best quarterback in-game now isn't a question that can be answered by three drives in one September game. But he does have the best arm and will likely wind up being the best option sometime down the road, in 2022 or 2023 or 2024. Why not start now?
A common counterargument here is that it's a bad idea to throw a freshman to the wolves early against teams like Alabama and Georgia. But Swann is going to have to face these teams eventually anyway; why not get him experience now when the starting quarterback isn't likely to make a difference in the result? So many of the intricacies of playing quarterback in college football are only learned by doing.
Mike Wright is a better option behind this offensive line
Part of the reason Wright was the starting quarterback over Ken Seals is because the offensive line struggled last year, not an ideal for a pocket passer like Seals — or Swann. Wright gave Vanderbilt more options with a run-pass option offense that simplified things for the line. And while the offensive line has looked better this year, it's unclear how much of that is due to the new offense built around Wright. According to ESPN, Swann was pressured on 42% of his dropbacks. While he performed admirably in those situations, that is far from ideal.
Where the argument of "do you really want to start Swann against Alabama and Georgia" argument does come into play is as it relates to the risk of injury. Seals picked up multiple injuries last season and with less mobility, it's likely Swann too would have a higher risk of getting hurt against some of the country's best defensive lines. Vanderbilt can't afford to lose either Wright or Swann, so if the Commodores aren't going to win anyway, it may be better to go with the option who gives the best chance of getting out of there without getting hurt.
AJ Swann helps recruiting
One of Lea's biggest priorities is and has been improving the team's recruiting. That got off to a good start this year considering last year's 2-10 record — Swann himself was one of the biggest fish Lea lured in. But Vanderbilt needs to show continued progress to keep the talent coming. The easiest way to do that is winning more games. But there are other options too, one of which is showing potential recruits a quarterback to be excited about. The Commodores need more speed on offense, and what better way to lure speedy receivers and running backs than showing them that Vanderbilt has a quarterback of the future?
For now, Lea is sticking with Wright, the team leader he believes deserves a shot to bounce back, who could still be the best option to win games despite a small sample Saturday. But with continued underperformance, Wright knows as well as anyone that Swann is waiting in the wings.
Aria Gerson covers Vanderbilt athletics for The Tennessean. Contact her at email@example.com or on Twitter @aria_gerson.