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Question Jay Cutler's toughness? Never a doubt at Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt quarterback Jay Cutler (6) now Bears signal caller looks for receiver against Richmond 2005.  |  AP File

Vanderbilt quarterback Jay Cutler (6), now the Bears signal caller, looks for a receiver against Richmond in 2005. | AP File Photo

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a record player

According to his bio at Vanderbilt, Jay Cutler owned 22 records when he left the school after the 2005 season. The most notable were total offense (9,953), touchdown passes (59), passing yards (8,697) and quarterback starts (45). Here’s a closer look at his college career:

Year SEC/Overall Comp/Att Pass yds TDs Ints Carries/Yds TDs

2002 0-8/2-10 103/212 1,433 10 9 123/ 393 9

2003 1-7/2-10 187/ 327 2,347 18 13 115/ 299 1

2004 1-7/ 2-9 147/ 241 1,844 10 5 109/ 349 6

2005 3-5/ 5-6 273/ 462 3,073 21 9 106/ 215 1

Updated: November 16, 2011 1:19AM

College quarterbacks are judged by wins and championships.

But when the Bears face the Tennessee Titans at LP Field on Saturday, Jay Cutler will be celebrated and embraced in Nashville because of his 11 victories in 45 starts at Vanderbilt.

‘‘We probably wouldn’t have won many of those games without Jay,” said Bobby Johnson, the Commodores’ coach from 2002 to 2009. “He’s tough, he didn’t make excuses and he’s the only sophomore I’ve had who was elected a captain.’’

In arguably the country’s strongest conference, Vanderbilt is easily the weakest team.

But the lightly recruited Cutler willed the program back to relevance and walked away with more than 20 school records.

“I had a great experience there,” Cutler said Wednesday. “It was a good 4½ years.

“We had a great group of coaches, a great group of guys, so it’s going to be fun to get back there.”

Landing at Vandy

Despite a standout career at Heritage Hills High School, Cutler wasn’t attracting college scholarships to play quarterback.

Many schools, in fact, wanted him to play safety.

Vanderbilt offered the only scholarship to play quarterback.

But Cutler redshirted in 2001 under coach Woody Widenhofer.

After a 2-9 season — and only four SEC wins in five seasons — Widenhofer was fired. Vanderbilt pursued bigger-name coaches such as former Northwestern coach Gary Barnett and former Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham before hiring Johnson, who had led Furman to the Division I-AA title game.

With most Vanderbilt students on Christmas break, Johnson and his staff scrambled to get acclimated. One of his assistants happened to notice a player on the practice field.

“He came in and said, ‘I think we got a quarterback,’ ’’ Johnson recalled. “I said, ‘Who?’

“He said, ‘Jay Cutler.’ ”

Many expected rising senior Benji Walker, who starred at nearby Brentwood Academy, to get the starting quarterback spot.

But Johnson said there was a buzz among offensive players about Cutler.

Despite needing to put together a freshman class, Johnson opted not to recruit a quarterback.

Steven Bright, another quarterback, quickly realized he had better learn a new position.

“Obviously, everyone always thinks, ‘I can compete,’ ’’ Bright said. ‘‘But it didn’t take long to watch him and see how hard he worked and how talented he was and that he was going to be really special.”

Taking off

Even by Johnson’s own admission, the Commodores didn’t have much talent.

“You have to understand, Vanderbilt hadn’t won an SEC game in several years,” he said. “We were just trying to figure out a way to move the ball.”

One of the ways was running an option, which is why Cutler had 123 carries his first season as a starter.

“I know it got frustrating sometimes,” Johnson said, “but he never flinched. He didn’t like to run out of bounds. He wanted to try to run over people. But it took its toll on him.”

His teammates marveled at the devastating blows he’d endure and his refusal to leave a game or even miss a practice.

“He’d come in on Sundays, and it looked like he had been in a heavyweight boxing match,” Bright said. “But he’d just keep going.

“His toughness is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”

Johnson joked that Cutler was a fixture on the injury report.

“General bruising,” Johnson recalled.

For a while, one of Vanderbilt’s most consistent plays was the quarterback draw and the load option.

“A lot of things that were un-quarterback-like,” said Bears guard Chris Williams, who played at Vanderbilt with Cutler. “So he took a lot of hits; it was unbelievable.”

In 45 college games, Cutler was sacked 84 times and carried the ball 453 times.

Willing team to wins

The Commodores didn’t win an SEC game in Cutler’s first year as a starter, but in his second season, they beat Kentucky, with Cutler running for 129 yards and throwing for four touchdowns.

The team had added some quality players, but it was still largely overmatched.

“There were not many games, especially in the SEC, where we had more talent than the other team,” said Bright, who converted to running back.

But Cutler didn’t complain, and he never blamed his teammates.

“He never said it was somebody else’s fault when a lot of times it was,” Johnson said. “When you don’t have time to throw, and you got to get rid of it, and take a sack, and the receiver hasn’t come out of his cut . . .

“It makes him look bad. But he knows that’s part of the game.”

By his senior year, though, Cutler blossomed and thrived, in part, because of Bears receiver Earl Bennett.

As a senior, Cutler led the Commodores to three SEC victories, including one against Tennessee in Knoxville — his team’s first there in 23 years.

Johnson marveled at Cutler’s performance against Florida in Gainesville.

In that game, Bennett was called for excessive celebration for shaking hands with a teammate after a touchdown. The Commodores eventually lost 49-42 in double overtime.

“Jay put on a show that night,” Johnson said. “Urban [Meyer] went right up to him and shook his hand.”

Vanderbilt finished that season 5-6, including the three SEC wins, the most since 1991.

“He single-handedly won games running the two-minute drill,” Williams said. “I always looked up to him because he was the leader of our team then, and he is now.”

Yet for all of Cutler’s relative success, Johnson thinks he’s still disappointed that he didn’t lead the Commodores to a bowl game.

“That still bothers him,” Johnson said. “He wants to win more than anything.”

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