On Sunday, Austyn Carta-Samuels trotted onto Vanderbilt’s practice field with the rest of the first-team offense in tow. The scoreboard clock marched toward zero, marking the time remaining in the Commodores’ final full-speed practice before Thursday’s season opener against Ole Miss — the precious seconds before Carta-Samuels’ self-proclaimed Cinderella story gives way to the reality of charging linemen and SEC football.
Last week, Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin announced what had long been expected: Carta-Samuels, who four years ago led the University of Wyoming Cowboys to a bowl game as a freshman — and who hasn’t topped a depth chart in nearly three years — would open the 2013 season as Vanderbilt’s starting quarterback and team captain.
This season, Carta-Samuels’ first as Vandy’s starter, is also his last as a collegiate quarterback. His coronation as Commodore signal caller marks the end of a career that has ping-ponged the 22-year-old from his home in San Jose, Calif., to Laramie, Wy., and back again — from mid-major obscurity to the starting job at one of the nation’s fastest rising programs.
“It has taken sacrifice,” he said, his cocksure California exterior — the blown-back hair, the vibrant snapback hat, the confident delivery — cracking beneath a weight carried and only recently overcome. Bubbling up is the insecurity, resentment and drive of a young man who, in five years, has enrolled in three different colleges and almost attended another three.
“I don’t think about the past when I’m out on the field,” Carta-Samuels said. “But it wouldn’t be right to say that this isn’t what I have been working for for the last three years. All the ups and downs I’ve had to overcome, all the times with my family where they needed to be there to support me while I was questioning my decision — this [season] has made it all worth it.”
Lighting up Laramie
The son of a collegiate tight end and world-class swimmer, Carta-Samuels is naturally athletic — more so than his predecessor at quarterback, fellow junior-college transfer Jordan Rodgers — and wields what Commodore receiver Jordan Matthews refers to as a “cannon.” But, at a notch over six feet, Carta-Samuels is undersized for his position. The quarterback points to his slight stature as something he has “fought ever since high school,” a red flag that limited his scholarship opportunities following graduation to just a dozen schools.
He initially accepted an offer from Purdue, but the unexpected retirement of longtime head coach Joe Tiller after the 2008 season caused Carta-Samuels to seek out familiarity. He thought he found what he was looking for at San Jose State, just ten minutes from home, and in quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo, who had been recruiting Carta-Samuels since his sophomore year of high school.
Then, two weeks before signing day, Carta-Samuels received a phone call from the coaches at San Jose State. Arroyo had been offered an offensive coordinator position at the University of Wyoming and would be leaving behind the Spartans and its newly recruited quarterback.
“That sent me into a whirlwind,” Carta-Samuels said. “I was emotional. I was crying.”
Eventually, the emotions settled like an incomplete pass fallen on the turf. But, also like a pass gone astray, the next bounce was unpredictable. When Carta-Samuels chose to follow Arroyo to Laramie — home of just over 30,000 people, 13,000 of whom are college students — he did so with more than a little trepidation.
“It’s strange,” he said. “It is a long way from California. You’re talking snow eight months a year. It is just different.”
The outlook for a starting job at Wyoming was no sunnier than the Laramie weather. As Carta-Samuels arrived on campus, incumbent starter Dax Crum was returning. The Cowboys had also signed Robert Benjamin, then the No. 1 junior-college quarterback in the country.
Carta-Samuels was undeterred by the depth chart. “I wanted to start as a freshman,” he said. “That was my goal. I got up there, battled throughout fall camp and worked out all summer. The first game of the season, they started [Benjamin]. But they told me I was going to play.”
In the season’s second game, Carta-Samuels completed 7 of 12 passes against Texas. The next week, he snatched the starting job from Benjamin, and, a week later, notched his first win over UNLV. The Cowboys would go on to win seven games in 2009, including a 35-28 double overtime victory in the New Mexico Bowl over Fresno State, a win Carta-Samuels clinched with a touchdown pass.
By the end of the season, Carta-Samuels had become the first true freshman to start for the Cowboys at quarterback since 1974 and one of only nine freshmen in the country to lead his team to a bowl game.
“It really was a Cinderella story,” he said wearily, as if the story — the accolades and accomplishments — belonged to someone else. “We went to a bowl game. We won the bowl game. I was the Mountain West Conference freshman of the year. I was the bowl game MVP, and it was on ESPN.”
The road home
The slipper soon fell off. In 2010, Carta-Samuels battled an injury and the Cowboys endured a tumultuous three-win campaign, one that culminated in the quarterback requesting his release from Wyoming, which the university denied.
“As a policy, we don’t release kids who are on scholarship,” said Matt Rahl, director of recruiting at Wyoming. “He was also our starting quarterback, someone who we were counting on.”
But Carta-Samuels was ready to move on, a decision he refused to elaborate on at the time but later claimed was born out of a desire to secure his future, on and off the football field.
“After that season,” he said, “I felt that it was best for me to pursue the best academic opportunity I had. I realized that year that football is never guaranteed. Your success is never guaranteed.”
“There was a lot of attrition [early on in Carta-Samuels’ career],” Rahl said. “There were guys who weren’t accustomed to the way we were doing things.”
“With that, I decided that I wanted to leave and pursue some other opportunities,” Carta-Samuels said. “I knew I had some accolades that other schools would want.”
NCAA rules, however, forbid Division I players denied release from transferring to another Division I school.
So Carta-Samuels left Laramie and went home. He took the semester off from organized football and enrolled in West Valley College, 20 minutes from San Jose. He lived with his parents and redirected his focus toward the classroom. He took 23 credits, graduating with a 3.50 GPA and an associate degree.
Only then was he free to return to Division I football.
In the two years since Carta-Samuels’ freshman campaign, the excitement — and the scholarship offers — had faded away. Only Colorado and Arizona were interested.
Carta-Samuels was ready to commit to Arizona when he got a call from Vanderbilt — not from Franklin or quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne, but from the admissions department. He had been accepted as a student on the merits of his transcript, with no help from football.
“It was a choice,” he said. “It was Arizona — a more football-oriented decision — or Vanderbilt.”
Vanderbilt was coming off back-to-back 2-10 seasons and had no scholarships left to offer, no roster spots to guarantee, nothing to dangle in front of Carta-Samuels but an education, a tuition bill and a spot in line as a walk-on.
But Carta-Samuels was attracted to the opportunities Vanderbilt presented. His grandfather, Tom Samuels, played center field for the Commodores and, according to Austyn, “claims constantly that Vanderbilt changed his life.” Samuels offered to support his grandson financially.
“He told me, ‘It’s because I know you, and I know you’ll have a scholarship quickly,’” Carta-Samuels said. “I knew that football would be something that, going to Vanderbilt, I wouldn’t regret. No matter what, I would have that degree.”
In summer 2011, Carta-Samuels joined the Commodores as a walk-on, a decision Franklin called “a complete leap of faith.”
“It was too early to tell [if he would ever play],” Franklin said. “But I was glad we had him. Our quarterback situation was a mess.”
Rahne didn’t know what to expect from the team's newest addition. “I knew he was very confident; I knew he had a strong arm,” he said. “Those were my first two impressions of him. I don’t know if he was fully invested that first year because he knew he couldn’t play.”
As he spent the entire 2011 season on the scout team, Carta-Samuels struggled to transition from the spread offense he had run in Laramie to Vanderbilt’s pro-style attack. Throughout the year, he was forced to come to terms with how much work a full comeback would require.
“Culturally, this was a huge change for him,” Franklin said. “Based on his high school, based on his previous college, how we expected him to understand the offense and how we expected him to carry himself on the field from a leadership perspective.”
“I’ve always relied on my natural athletic ability — my arm — to overcome anything else,” Carta-Samuels said. “With coach Franklin, you have to put in more work off the field than you do on it. I was a little resistant to that. I never had to do that before.”
Carta-Samuels continued to make adjustments throughout 2011. At season’s end, he was named scout team player of the year and was awarded a scholarship.
“Once he got the scholarship, the following camp, that’s when I started to see a big change,” Rahne said. “He prepared hard during the week. I think that’s what’s changed over the last year or so.”
In 2012, Carta-Samuels started one game — a 58-0 romp over Presbyterian. Otherwise, he looked on as Rodgers and the Commodores won just the third bowl game in school history.
Now, with Rodgers graduated, Carta-Samuels will start for a Commodores team that returns 15 starters from a team that won nine games last season. Though he won’t be the team’s only new face come Thursday’s kickoff, his presence — and strong arm — gives Vanderbilt its best hope for its first 10-win season in school history.
“Austyn’s got a great arm,” Matthews said. “A lot of savvy, a lot of poise, a lot of swagger to him. I wouldn’t label him as a gunslinger because he makes good reads and he works efficiently. He uses his arm as a strength and not a weakness. He’s really good. A great leader. You can tell his playing experience at Wyoming helped him too.”
“I don’t know where we’d be without him, to be honest with you,” Franklin said.
Said Rahne: “We wouldn’t put him in this situation if he wasn’t ready. He’s earned the right to start.”
This season, the Commodores return Matthews, a unanimous first team All-SEC selection in 2012, senior receiver Jonathan Krause and — pending the end of a team-imposed suspension — 6-foot-4 target Chris Boyd. The Commodores also added four-star recruit Jordan Cunningham, already listed at third on the well-stocked, mostly veteran depth chart.
Throw in running backs Wesley Tate, Brian Kimbrow and Jerron Seymour, and the Commodores will likely boast their most powerful offense in a long time.
Whether they realize or even surpass their potential, however, will rely on Carta-Samuels, the man who last was a starter a lifetime ago, whose trek through college football purgatory – from Laramie to JUCO, scout team to starter – has helped him become the man – and quarterback – he is today.
“No one will understand the things I had to overcome,” Carta-Samuels said, “going from the starting quarterback and captain at the University of Wyoming and really the face of the program, to going to junior college, and coming here, and having to take such a small role.”
“It’s been completely worth it. I can’t say along the process that I thought it was worth it. But with coach Franklin, what he’s done to me as a person, and my teammates here, and my family being there for me, and this Vanderbilt degree — I will forever be thankful for this decision that I made.”
On Thursday, Carta-Samuels will trot onto the field, the first-team offense and three years of choice and change following closely behind, with ESPN’s cameras there again to film each step. The specter of his career — the fast start, an even faster disappearing act, the slow, uncertain slog back — will lurk just outside the frame, casting light and shadow on Austyn Carta-Samuels as he declares, once and for all, that the destination was worth the journey.
Jesse Golomb is a junior in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at Jesse.M.Golomb@Vanderbilt.edu.