COLUMBIA — Grady Brown coached last season at Southern Mississippi, so he wasn’t intimately familiar with the quarterbacking styles of Connor Shaw or Jordan Rodgers.
He learned Shaw’s during spring practices, when Brown debuted as South Carolina’s defensive backs coach.
Recently, when Brown flipped on video of Rodgers, to prepare for Thursday night’s opener at Vanderbilt, something immediately struck him about the Commodores’ fifth-year senior quarterback.
“He actually reminds me of Connor Shaw when you watch him a lot,” said Brown.
Rodgers will test Brown’s unit, which lost starting cornerback Akeem Auguste for at least a month to a thigh injury. Jimmy Legree will start in his place, though redshirt freshman Ahmad Christian will also play. Legree has two career starts, strong safety Brison Williams one and corner Victor Hampton zero. Other than senior free safety D.J. Swearinger, a third-year starter, Brown’s group is quite green because of the absence of Auguste, who started in 2009 and 2010.
Rodgers is not the best quarterback in the country. Nor is he his older brother, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. But like Shaw, he is a capable passer and runner.
“Any time you’ve got a quarterback that can run the ball, he’s a tough challenge,” said Swearinger.
During film study, Brown noticed that Rodgers “ran the ball exceptionally well” in last year’s 31-28 loss to Arkansas, which finished 11-2. Rodgers ran 18 times for 66 yards in that game, including touchdowns of three and 19 yards. With three minutes left and the Commodores down three points, Rodgers drove them 80 yards, highlighted by a 48-yard pass, to set up a 27-yard field goal. It sailed wide right, and Rodgers’ drive was rendered a footnote of sorts.
Rodgers’ best statistical running games were Wake Forest (16 carries for 90 yards) and Georgia (11 for 79). He entered the Georgia game after Larry Smith got hurt and started for the final seven games after that. Vanderbilt played USC two games before Smith’s injury, and the Gamecocks limited the Commodores to a season-low 77 yards in a 21-3 victory. In the seven games Rodgers started, Vanderbilt averaged 405 yards, compared to 261 before that.
Arkansas was just Rodgers’ second start, and he showed remarkable poise for a player who spent his first two seasons at junior college and redshirted in 2010 at Vanderbilt. He finished last season with a 50 percent completion rate and 1,524 yards. He averaged 184 yards as a starter. All told, he threw nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions, including three in a 27-21 loss to Tennessee – a winnable game for the Commodores.
Vanderbilt went 6-7 last season and made a bowl game for the second time since 1982. The Commodores lost games by seven, six, five, five and three points, all from the Georgia game on. They were clearly competitive with Rodgers starting. But they will need more from him this season, if they are going to attain their third winning record since 1975.
Rodgers will turn 24 years old on Thursday, so he seems mature enough to handle opening a year of increased expectations with the highest-profile game of the season’s first night. He also has a legitimate receiving threat in Jordan Matthews, who caught 41 passes for 778 yards and five touchdowns last season. He thrived with Rodgers as the starter, with games of 131, 151 and 170 yards, and a touchdown catch in each.
Rodgers and Matthews will no doubt try to attack USC’s inexperienced corners. Legree will line up on Swearinger’s side of the field, and while Swearinger downplayed the impact of the secondary being inexperienced, other than him, he realizes his role will change at least a little bit.
“I think I was a tremendous leader last year,” he said. “But with me being a senior, I’ve got bigger shoes to fill. It’s just getting guys ready. Guys have got a different role now. They’re not backups anymore. They’ve got to take a whole different focus.”
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