Vanderbilt football: Even with Alabama next, AJ Swann is QB of the present and future

Aria Gerson
Nashville Tennessean

DEKALB, Ill. — Coach Clark Lea had a choice after Vanderbilt football's loss to Wake Forest. He could stick with incumbent starting quarterback Mike Wright, a junior and captain with dual-threat ability. Or he could take the plunge with four-star freshman AJ Swann, who'd forced the question with his performance late in the previous week's game.

Lea said he made the decision Wednesday to go with Swann. It paid off handsomely, as Swann threw four touchdowns and led Vanderbilt (3-1) from a two-touchdown deficit early in the third quarter to a 38-28 win over Northern Illinois (1-2) on Saturday. He finished 18-for-28 for 255 yards with no interceptions or sacks.

"We knew coming out of ... the six quarters of football from the second half of Elon through Wake, we weren't playing well enough on offense to not look at what we could do to move forward," Lea said. "... We knew we needed to open up and see if there was an answer for us to loosen the box, to get momentum to extend drives. ... We had really stumbled on third down there in those last six quarters."

Lea met with offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Joey Lynch after Wednesday's practice and made the call to go with Swann. Lea sat down with Swann and Wright to inform them.

"This is about the team; it's about what the team needs," Lea said.

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Lea said that Wright took the decision well despite disappointment at losing the job, and Swann himself said he and Wright were supportive of each other. What Lea wouldn't do is commit to Swann as the starter going forward, re-iterating that players need to earn it every day.

With a game at Alabama looming next week, Swann may be Vanderbilt's best chance to avoid a laugher. At the same time, a freshman making his second career start against the Crimson Tide is a scary proposition.

After the NIU game, Swann said he still wasn't satisfied, that there were plays he felt he didn't improvise enough. But what he did do stands out: With his team down two touchdowns in the third quarter, he led three touchdown drives in five minutes, complete with a fourth-and-8 conversion and a play where he escaped a sack and threw a touchdown pass. It's not easy, as a freshman, to maintain that kind of composure facing an early deficit.

"One big play can change the entire ... game," Swann said. "... Their first touchdown was they got out of the pocket made a big play and you kind of felt the stands explode for them. They got a little momentum off of that. Well, we just fired back and the momentum shifted back to us."

When Swann was named the backup quarterback to start the season, it was evident that the team saw him as the quarterback of the future. Now, it seems he's the quarterback of the present, too.

Aria Gerson covers Vanderbilt athletics for The Tennessean. Contact her at agerson@gannett.com or on Twitter @aria_gerson.