Nashville—Andy Ludwig knows that a good offense looks like.
In 2013 he was the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin, where the Badgers set a school record for yards gained (480.8 ppg). In 2014 Wisconsin posted the third-best offensive season in school history with 468.9 yards per game. In the process Mevlin Gordon became a Heisman Trophy finalist with 2,587 yards rushing. That was 500 more yards than the nation’s No. 2 rusher, Indiana’s Tevin Coleman.
In his 28-year coaching career Ludwig has developed more than his fair share of quarterbacks. That list that includes including Fresno State’s David Carr, Oregon’s Kellen Clemmens, and Utah’s Brian Johnson.
Now it can be said that Ludwig is most likely facing the biggest challenge of his professional career.
Despite his success in his two years at Wisconsin, Ludwig did not follow when Gary Andersen suddenly left the Badgers last December to become head coach at Oregon State. Paul Chryst, the incoming Wisconsin head coach, had his own guy. Thus Ludwig was available when the call came from Vanderbilt Coach Derek Mason.
Mason needed help. He actually needed a lot of help and convinced Ludwig to take on the task of rebuilding a Vanderbilt offense that finished last in scoring (17.2 ppg) and yards (288.5 ypg) in the SEC in 2014. As challenges go, this one’s a doozy.
“I’ve watched Andy for a long time. I was always impressed with his ability to adapt to his personnel,” said Mason. “I want us to be multiple. I want us to be able to run the ball. Andy has proven he can do that. Andy is one of the brightest and really one of the more unique offensive coordinators in the country.”
I sat down with Ludwig earlier this year and, as delicately as I could, asked him why he took this job. Don’t get me wrong. Nashville is a great town and Vanderbilt is a wonderful school. But it is, to put it bluntly, a very precarious situation for a new coach to come in to.
Mason will be the first one to admit that his first Vanderbilt team (3-9, 0-8 SEC) was not very well coached. That’s why he fired both coordinators after the season. He took over the defense himself and hired Ludwig to salvage the offense.
“I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to coach and compete in the SEC,” said Ludwig, who has made coaching stops at Utah, Boise State, Fresno State, Oregon, and California, just to name a few. “I knew what the challenges were when I took the job. He (Mason) really didn’t have to tell me. But when I got here I was impressed with the character of the players. We are young but with youth there is the opportunity to grow.”
Now Ludwig has some pieces he can use to build. It starts with sophomore running back Ralph Webb, who set a freshman record at Vanderbilt when he ran for 907 yards rushing on 212 carries last season. Wisconsin’s Gordon, by contrast, had 343 carries last season. So expect Webb to get a lot of work in an effort to shorten the game.
“I think Ralph has a chance to be a very special player,” said Ludwig.
Now the quarterback situation for Ludwig is a little more complicated.
Redshirt sophomore Johnny McCrary has been competing all spring and summer with sophomore Wade Freebeck. McCrary had five starts last season. Freebeck had four. Neither was particularly impressive.
McCrary is the more athletic of the two and earned the SEC Freshman of the week honors when he competed 20 of 29 passes for 281 yards and five touchdowns in a 42-28 win over Old Dominion Nov. 1.
“The thing about Johnny is that he doesn’t have to have the perfect played called to be effective,” said Ludwig.
McCrary, who completed only 51.3 percent of this passes last season, red-shirted as a freshman in 2013. After starter Patton Robinette got hurt in the second game with Ole Miss, Freebeck was named the starter for the third game with UMass. It was a tough pill for McCrary to swallow.
“It wasn’t easy. It tested me. It tested my character,” said the native of Decatur, Ga. “But I really like Coach Ludwig. He is a player’s coach. He has great wisdom about the game. I want some of that wisdom.”
How’s this for a piece of irony?
Freebeck (6-5, 224) originally committed to Pittsburgh and Paul Chryst out of St. Thomas Acquinas High School in Davie, Fla. Chryst leaves Pittsburgh to go to Wisconsin. Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin left for Penn State and took quarterback commitment Trace McSorley with him. So Vanderbilt needs a quarterback and comes in late on Freedbeck, who signs and is now playing for Andy Ludwig, who was at Wisconsin.
Freebeck really wasn’t ready when he became the starter, Ludwig told me. In retrospect he should have been redshirted (my opinion). Freebeck was injured in the seventh game against Charleston Southern and did not return for the rest of the season. On the season Freebeck completed 34 of 72 passes for 376 yards and one touchdown. His best outing was against South Carolina where he came off the bench to complete 11 of 20 passes.
Mason has insisted throughout fall camp that he only wants to play one quarterback in the first game with Western Kentucky. That would be quite a departure from the 2014 opener with Temple when Vanderbilt played four quarterbacks.
So who’s going to start? Mason says the public won’t know until game time on Thursday.
Western Kentucky, we might add, knows who its quarterback will be. Brandon Doughty, the reigning Conference USA Player of the Year, threw for 4,830 yards and 49 touchdowns last season. He also had a sixth year of eligibility granted by the NCAA due to injuries in 2011 and 2012, which allowed him to return for this season.
Vanderbilt’s other non-conference games are with Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee State, and Houston. The conference schedule includes road trips to Ole Miss, South Carolina, Florida, and Texas A&M.
In short, beating last year’s 3-9 record is going to be hard—if not impossible–to do.