‘Dores Ready for an Encore
By Matt Smith
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Vanderbilt is set to start up spring practice Friday afternoon.
After 15 wins in two years, Vanderbilt’s once improbable dreams of an SEC East title now seem realistic. James Franklin is entering his third year in charge of the Commodores, having improved the team’s win total by four and three in 2011 and 2012 respectively.
Has Vanderbilt reached its plateau after going 9-4, finishing above .500 in SEC play and winning the Music City Bowl? We won’t know for certain until the fall, but the 2013 Commodores launch on Friday with the start of spring practice.
Let’s look at five questions Vanderbilt faces over the coming month leading up to the team’s annual Black and Gold Game on Apr. 13.
1. Who Replaces Zac Stacy?
The Commodores will likely employ a committee approach in the backfield this year after the departure of their all-time leading rusher. Senior Wesley Tate (brother of the Seattle Seahawks’ Golden Tate) and sophomore Brian Kimbrow give the offense a pair of experienced backs whose strengths complement each other.
“I don’t think that you can have [one] running back in the SEC, that this is your workhorse,” Franklin said on Tuesday at his spring kickoff press conference. “If one of them is clearly the guy, then yeah, I think we’ll have a situation like we did last year [with Stacy]. I think Tate really showed some flashes last year of what he can bring to the table. Kimbrow has to get bigger and stronger to be an every-down back. It’s hard to do it at 168 pounds.”
Sophomore Jerron Seymour may have the most big-play potential of any running back, but redshirted last season due to a combination of injuries and depth at the position. He’ll be back in the fold this spring, giving the Commodores a power back in Tate, a speed back in Kimbrow, and a quick, shifty back in Seymour.
2. Is there a quarterback competition?
Not initially, but don’t rule out redshirt freshman Patton Robinette making a push to overthrow senior Austyn Carta-Samuels, a transfer from Wyoming who started one game last season. Carta-Samuels led the Cowboys to a bowl game in 2009 before falling out of favor in 2010. Josh Grady, who returns to quarterback after a year at wide receiver, at least for the spring, could factor into the competition.
“It’s going to be an interesting battle,” Franklin said. “Austyn Carta-Samuels obviously has the edge. He’s done it before. Experience counts. Patton Robinette is a winner in every sense of the word. He’s going to give Austyn everything he’s got. Grady is kind of the wild card.”
Freshman Johnathan McCrary enrolled in January and will participate in spring practice. A redshirt season is likely, but the Commodores should learn a lot about what they have in future years at the quarterback position over the next four weeks as McCrary’s career takes flight.
3. Are the Commodores receivers the best in the SEC?
The group in Tuscaloosa may have something to say about it, but the Commodores corps doesn’t take a backseat to any group. The unit known as the “Fly Boyz” is led by All-SEC wide receiver Jordan Matthews, who turned down a chance at the NFL to return to Nashville for his senior season. Matthews’ 1,323 yards last season were second highest in the SEC.
“We've got as productive a wide receiver unit as anybody in the country,” Franklin said. “You want veteran playmakers that are team guys. Having [senior Jonathan] Krause, having [junior Chris] Boyd, having Matthews, I think that’s what you really want. We've got these five freshman wideouts coming in. Who better for them to train under for at least a year?”
Boyd had five touchdown receptions last year and gives the Commodores a big target in the red zone. The tight end position also figures to be improved this season, with three freshmen joining sophomores Kris Kentera and Stephen Scheu. Junior college transfer Brandon Vandenburg won’t enroll until the summer, but may be the best tight end on the roster upon his arrival.
4. Does the defensive line resemble the elite SEC fronts?
Not yet, but it’s close. The Commodores lose a pair of starters in tackle Rob Lohr and end Johnell Thomas, but the majority of the group returns intact, led by senior end Walker May. Sophomore Caleb Azubike showed star potential as a freshman last season, registering four sacks in a reserve role. The inside spots are a bit in flux, partially due to part-time starter Jared Morse not currently being with the team.
“Jared broke a team rule and is not here this spring,” Franklin said. “We’re hoping that Jared will have a chance to come back. We’ll see. It’s out of our hands. As of right now, we’re moving on as if he’s not here.”
Adam Butler, a 6’4”, 290-pound sophomore has shifted over from the offensive line to help add size and depth to the defensive front. Junior Barron Dixon will be a limited participant this spring due to a minor injury.
“The game of football, in college and the NFL and especially in the SEC, is played up front. We think we’re finally starting to create some legitimate SEC depth along the offensive line and [Butler’s move] will give us the ability to provide more SEC depth on the defensive line.”
5. Has offensive line depth improved?
The Commodores could barely field a starting five on the offensive line last spring due to injuries and attrition. Herb Hand’s unit is in much better shape now than at this point a year ago. Wesley Johnson has become an All-SEC caliber player at the all-important left tackle position, and two other starters return.
“Last year we had seven offensive linemen for spring ball,” Franklin recalled. “This year we have I think 15 and have a two-deep that we feel good about. We had a hard time last year developing a No. 2 quarterback last year because we didn’t have a full No. 2 offensive line to protect him.”
Johnson started the final three games at right tackle, but is likely to return to the left side for his final season. The main competition will be at center, as juniors Spencer Pulley and Joe Townsend, co-starters last season, will battle for the starting role. Senior Chase White and sophomore Jake Bernstein have the inside track for the two guard positions. Junior Andrew Bridges, who started nine games last season, and redshirt freshman Andrew Jelks are in the mix for the vacant tackle position.