Coach James Franklin made quite a splash at Vanderbilt last year, taking the Commodores to a berth in the Liberty Bowl and a fourth-place finish in the Southeastern Conference’s Eastern Division. With a number of key players back for 2012, Franklin has a chance to take Vanderbilt to its second bowl game in as many years – which, if he can pull it off, would be the first time in school history.
That made Vandy’s spring practice one to watch. The Commodores wrapped things up on Saturday when the Black squad defeated the Gold in the school’s annual spring game this weekend.
Now that spring drills are done, Sports and Entertainment Nashville Magazine summarizes five key things we learned about VU in March and April.
1. Quarterback Jordan Rodgers looks as if he’ll retain his starting job.
When the junior overtook Larry Smith as Vandy’s top quarterback halfway through the Georgia game, Vandy’s offense reached heights it hadn’t seen since Jay Cutler was behind center on West End. From that sixth game through the end of the regular season vs. Wake Forest, VU gained at least 348 yards in all but one contest, with Rodgers’ running and passing skills leading the way.
But Rodgers performed poorly in two of VU’s last three games, including the bowl loss to Cincinnati, cracking the door for Austyn Carta-Samuels, the Wyoming transfer who was the Mountain West Freshman of the Year in 2009, to give Rodgers a run at the starting job. Rodgers, though, finished the spring game by completing 14-of-29 passes for 126 yards and two scores, had a solid spring and is clearly VU’s No. 1 quarterback at this point.
2. Running back will continue to be a position of strength.
Last year, Zac Stacy had one of the best seasons by an SEC running back, accounting for 1,299 yards between his rushing and receiving efforts and also scoring 15 touchdowns. Stacy, though, wasn’t VU’s best back the previous two seasons; that honor belonged to former SEC Freshman of the Year Warren Norman, who missed the end of 2010 and all of last year with injuries.
Norman returned to the field near the end of the spring and hopes to push Stacy for carries again this fall, plus, running back-turned-receiver-turned-running back Wesley Tate also ripped off several long gains this spring.
Add freshman Brian Kimbrow – perhaps the nation’s fastest incoming freshman – this fall, and VU is set in the backfield, for sure.
3. The offensive line is a work in progress…
Offensive line coach Herb Hand practically worked a miracle last season, turning one of the league’s worst units – and certainly, one of the thinnest – into a respectable bunch by season’s end. But VU didn’t have a lot of depth before right tackle Kyle Fischer’s graduation, and got a bit thinner after backup center Jose Valedon quit this spring. Plus, guard Ryan Seymour was hampered with injuries, limiting even further what Hand could do.
All’s not lost; sophomores Spencer Pulley and Andrew Bridges started to emerge, which helps. But VU had only 10 scholarship linemen at the end of practice, at least half of whom haven’t played much. That sets the stage for any one of Franklin’s six prized offensive line recruits to challenge for playing time this fall.
4. … as is linebacker.
VU has seven linebackers on scholarship. However, that number is deceiving: Andrew East is mostly a long-snapper, and Karl Butler and Larry Franklin are 212-pound converted safeties playing there mostly because of depth issues. Of the unit’s three players with much experience, Chase Garnham and Tristan Strong had significant injury problems.
That put true freshman Darreon Herring squarely on the spot. Herring, a highly-recruited player, graduated high school in December and hurried to campus to help give Vandy depth here. Herring had a solid spring and will almost certainly play this fall, especially with the lack of other options.
5. Vanderbilt’s returnees in the secondary continue to make progress.
VU’s defensive backfield was certainly in the top half of the SEC a year ago. Unfortunately, two of the key players – second-team All-American cornerback Casey Hayward and safety Sean Richardson – graduated, and are likely going to be in the NFL this fall.
That put pressure on redshirt freshmen Andrew Williamson and Derek King, along with rising seniors Eddie Foster and Eric Samuels, to step up. Each of them did, and while the unit may lack the star power of 2011, last year’s depth should be a strength again: there are at least eight or nine guys who appear capable of playing at an SEC level.
In addition to writing for Sports and Entertainment Nashville Magazine, Chris Lee doubles as the publisher at VandySports.com.