Top 25 finishes are unheard-of at Vanderbilt, but that’s what coach James Franklin’s Commodores did a year ago. Even though VU lost 10 starters, including the school’s all-time leading rusher in Zac Stacy and a quality starting quarterback in Jordan Rodgers, the Commodores stand a reasonable chance to do it again.
With the help of a coaching staff that’s excellent in recruiting and player development — and all of the assistants return for 2013 — Franklin has assembled recruiting classes that have left the ‘Dores with quality depth and few glaring weaknesses.
The obvious questions are in the backfield, where Stacy will be tough to replace. He posted back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons and was hands-down VU’s best back. However, the trio of Hendersonville’s Wesley Tate, Jerron Seymour and Brian Kimbrow showed promise in the spring.
Tate, a senior and the likely starter, started to utilize his raw speed better than he’s ever done before in the spring. The slippery Seymour has great vision and change-of-direction skills, and has recovered from an injury that cost him last season. Kimbrow’s size (5-foot-8, 185 pounds) may limit his carries, but he gives VU a definite offensive threat.
The other issue is whether Austyn Carta-Samuels can replace Rodgers. The fifth-year senior has barely played since leaving Wyoming following the 2010 season, but he showed the same qualities with his arm and feet this spring that made him the Mountain West’s Freshman of the Year in 2009.
He’ll have plenty of help. Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd are likely the league’s best receiving tandem, and Matthews could be a first-round NFL draft pick next spring. Montgomery Bell Academy’s Wesley Johnson, an All-SEC candidate at left tackle, anchors a group of offensive linemen that otherwise lacks stars but has experience and depth.
The Vandy defense will once again be in good shape under coordinator Bob Shoop, who took over a unit that was in shambles three years ago before transforming it to a unit that finished 21st and 17th nationally in total defense in his first two seasons.
Cornerback Andre Hal, a preseason second-team All-American by Athlon’s, co-anchors the defensive backfield with safety Kenny Ladler, another legitimate NFL prospect. The only knock on the group is that it will need to take the ball away more than it did last year (11 interceptions).
Last year’s defense got better once linebackers Chase Garnham and Karl Butler became comfortable around mid-season after position changes. Shoop will likely bring pressure with Garnham a lot again this season. The Commodores could also get a breakthrough season from highly recruited sophomore Darreon Herring, who was forced into action due to a lack of depth last year.
Up front, Shoop has three ends in Kyle Woestmann, Walker May and McGavock’s Caleb Azubike who have all consistently flashed difference-making ability, making it likely that Vanderbilt will rank in the top half of the league in sacks again.
Things are less certain in the interior where Vanderbilt replaces starters Rob Lohr and Colt Nichter, but Barron Dixon and Vince Taylor are both talented players who had good springs. Jared Morse is also back, and redshirt Adam Butler developed quickly in the spring after a move from offensive line.
The Commodores may have the league’s best field-goal kicker in Carey Spear (20-of-24 field goals last season), but they will need to replace an outstanding punter in Richard Kent.
Franklin engineered a bit of smart scheduling by replacing Ohio State and Northwestern on this year’s slate with Austin Peay and Alabama-Birmingham. The Commodores should be heavy favorites in those games, as well as in out-of-conference tilts with Massachusetts and Wake Forest. An SEC schedule that includes at least four likely preseason Top 25 opponents (South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and Texas A&M, and maybe even Ole Miss) won’t be easy, though.