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Vanderbilt needs Kyle Shurmur to take critical steps forward this spring

Kyle Shurmur doesn't have to be perfect for Vanderbilt to be successful in 2017. AP Photo/Mark Humphrey

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Kyle Shurmur grabbed the snap from under center, his defensive teammates instantly bearing down on him.

Quick into Shurmur's three-step drop, two players darted toward the 6-foot-4 quarterback. Instantly, Shurmur slid to his right but not fast enough.

Throwing window all but closed, Shurmur awkwardly skipped a pass toward his receiving target just a few yards ahead. With defenders celebrating their imaginary sack, a scratchy, displeased voice boomed over the loudspeakers inside Vanderbilt's indoor practice facility.

"If you can't move out of the pocket, get off the field!" Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason's voice exploded.

Chalk it up to post-spring break rust or a beautiful defensive play, but in that moment, Shurmur was the scapegoat. Such is life for a starting quarterback, and when you're the starting quarterback for a Vanderbilt team looking to build off its first bowl berth since 2013, slow footwork is a major no-no, even in mid-March.

The good news is that Shurmur, who will enter his second season as the Commodores' full-time starter, is the guy. His job isn't up for graps, especially with Shurmur's past backup -- and early-season rotational partner -- Wade Freebeck transfering.

But not having to protect his job doesn't extinguish pressure. It's been intensified in Nashville this spring, as Mason and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig look to rejuvenate an offense that hasn't ranked any better than 11th in scoring, passing or total offense during Mason's three seasons.

Vandy needs to find proven playmakers outside of running back Ralph Webb and receivers Trent Sherfield and C.J. Duncan, but it's most important goal for the spring is to make sure the Kyle Shurmur who lit up the skies in November returns and pushes the old, mistake-prone Kyle Shurmur miles down I-65.

“I anticipate a much more developed player back," Ludwig said of Shurmur.

Shurmur was probably one of the SEC's most improved players in 2016, especially because of his late-season surge. After having his redshirt ripped off in 2015 and throwing for 503 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions in five games, Shurmur finished the 2016 season with 2,409 yards, nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He recorded 1,162 of those yards and five of those touchdowns in the month of November.

Shurmur led Vandy to its first bowl game in three seasons by helping the Commodores win four of their final six games and passing for more than 200 yards in his last four, after hitting 200 yards just once in his previous eight games. He sealed Vandy's bowl position with a career-best 416 yards in the Dores' 45-34 upset of rival Tennessee.

“We knew it was there the whole time," Duncan said of Shurmur's November emergence. "When you have a quarterback like Kyle, you always put yourself in position to win ball games."

To get to that point, Shurmur said he had to learn how to accept mortality. A field perfectionist by nature, the former top recruit pegged as a future star as one of Mason's first prized recruits in 2015, Shurmur said his biggest internal obstacle was his quest to make every throw perfect. Ironically, his quest for the superb was subpar, leading to too many mistakes.

He completed just 50 percent of his passes in two of his five starts in 2015 and he began the 2016 season 2-4 with three touchdowns and three interceptions. Shurmur said his deeper passes doomed him, as he either hesitated too much or tried to do too much with too many of the wrong colored jerseys around.

However, the simple task of getting more reps helped his confidence. With more reps and confidence came more chemistry, which resulted in wins and substantial passing numbers that made Vandy's offense formidable late in the season.

Shurmur's old habits crept up in Vandy's bowl game blowout loss to NC State. Dealing with an undisclosed injury -- which still lingers -- and watching his deep passes sail and skip, Shurmur threw three interceptions and pressed his way to completing just 41.3 percent of his passes.

Again, perfection was his enemy.

“You just gotta play," Ludwig said. "It’s a game played imperfect people chasing perfection. Just play and worry about the plays you can make."

That's what Shurmur is concentrating on now, and he's also making sure he's getting even more work with his receivers this spring. He's throwing to them when the coaches are analyzing his every move and when it's just him and his boys. He made pre-spring 7-on-7s more of a priority, as reps have become just as important as oxygen.

“The chemistry is everything between a quarterback and his receivers, and that’s grown a lot," Duncan said. "We trust in him, and we know he can make the big throws."

And this season is crucial in the progression of not just Shurmur but Vandy as a whole. Six wins was a major accomplishment in Mason's third year, but now its time to evolve. Now it's time for Vandy to truly compete in the SEC East from start to finish.

That starts and ends with Shurmur's evolution.

“I know I can make big plays, and I know this offense can make big plays," Shurmur said. "It’s about [handling] those ways, up and down, you have to be consistent. Being consistent is the biggest thing.”