If having a high number of returning starters mean anything, Vanderbilt ought to win the conference in 2011. The Commodores welcome back 21 starters, including all 11 on offense. But this is a team beset by many problems, most notably a lack of athleticism relative to its peers in the SEC.
Returning Offensive Starters: 11 (SE, FL, WR, TE, LT, LG, C, RG, RT, QB, RB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 8 (RDE, RDT, LDT, MLB, RCB, LCB, SS, FS)
Returning Specialists: 2 (P, PK)
Projected Overall Record: 5-7 (UA, Ark, UF, UGA, UK, USC, UT)
Projected SEC Record: 1-7 (UA, Ark, UF, UGA, UK, USC, UT)
Projected SEC East Record: 0-5 (UF, UGA, UK, USC, UT)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Pr Defensive Line: Fr
Running Backs: Vg Linebackers: Av
Wide Receivers: Fr Defensive Backs: Av
Offensive Line: Fr Special Teams: Pr
Vanderbilt will run some version of the spread offense. It won’t be a pure spread, and it won’t be a pure spread-option attack. Vandy has the personnel for neither of those attacks. Instead, Franklin and offensive coordinator John Donovan will attempt to play to the strengths of the offense, namely its running back group, while minimizing the damage a group of inefficient quarterbacks have inflicted upon the offense the last two years.
QUARTERBACKS (rating: Pr, 6th SEC East, 12th overall)
Larry Smith is a senior now, but he’s 4-15 as a starter the last two years and it’s time to perform. Smith came from the heralded Prattville High School program in Alabama, where he operated an offense very similar to Tony Franklin’s offense at Troy many years ago. It hasn’t translated to success at Vandy, however. Smith completed less than 50 percent of his passes in 2010 and threw only 6 touchdowns, although he did keep his interception count low (5). He was pushed in fall camp by Jordan Rogers, the younger brother of Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, but Smith apparently held onto the job. True freshmen Josh Grady and LaFonte Thourogood round out the top group. Grady is short and slight of build, but was highly efficient in high school and can scramble. Thourogood may be the best prospect Vandy has signed in years. He’s a top-level athlete who could move to wide receiver down the road if needed. Smith’s leash will be short.
RUNNING BACKS (rating: Vg, 2nd SEC East, 5th overall)
There are several SEC squads that would trade running back groups with Vanderbilt this year. The Commodores have three proven players, Warren Norman, Zac Stacy and Wesley Tate. Norman is particularly electric and could very well be the best kick returner in the conference. His only drawback is his size, as he takes far too many big hits thanks to the Commodore offensive line. Stacy averaged 5.0 yards per carry in 2010 and is a hard-nosed runner who delivers as many licks as he takes. Tate is the team’s most physical back. Vandy’s base set figures to include just one running back with no fullback, but Norman and Stacy could line up in split-backs formation when the situation calls for it. When the Commodores do need a fullback, Marc Panu and converted tight end Fitz Lassing will split the job. Micah Powell provides depth at tailback. Two true freshman scatbacks, Jerron Seymour and Mitchell Hester, could see the field early.
WIDE RECEIVERS (rating: Fr, 6th SEC East, 11th overall)
There is plenty of experience here, but when the best thing anyone can say about your receivers is that they block well, it should be a sign that improvement is needed. John Cole went into 2010 as Vanderbilt’s supposed best receiver; he lost his starting position in the spring to sophomore Jordan Matthews. Jonathan Krause and Udom Udoh round out the starting group, but the only real receiving threat to prove himself thus far is tight end Brandon Barden. Akeem Dunham offers experience off the bench along with Brady Brown, but it’s redshirt freshman Chris Boyd who is drawing the most attention given his frame (6’4”, 210 pounds). Behind Barden, one of the conference’s most underrated tight ends, is Austin Monahan and Mason Johnston. All three have good size. Vanderbilt signed no pure wide receivers in recruiting, and the most promising tight end prospect, Dillon Van Der Wal, might start out at defensive end. He has great height (6’7”).
OFFENSIVE LINE (rating: Fr, 6th SEC East, 12th overall)
Left tackle Wesley Johnson was a freshman all-SEC and all-America pick in 2010, so it’s not unreasonable to expect him to do a decent job in 2011. The right side of the line is in capable hands with Kyle Fischer at guard and Ryan Seymour at tackle. Left guard Jabo Burrow and center Logan Stewart need to improve. There is no depth whatsoever, with Burrow doing double duty as the backup center, while Caleb Welchans will essentially be responsible for everything else. Mylon Brown can play guard and Chase White tackle, but there’s a big dropoff from the starters to those two. Most of the other available players are also freshmen, including Grant Ramsey, Andrew Bridges and signee Spencer Pulley. Look for Vanderbilt to possibly shuffle Johnson to center if they think they can get a decent matchup at left tackle. Any way the Dores go, they’ll need to double their effectiveness at least before this group can be considered anything but a liability.
The Commodores run a pure 4-3 defense that takes advantage of its veteran line and a couple of playmakers in the linebacker group. The secondary is decent as well, meaning Vanderbilt might be able to stay in more games this year and at least make the opposition work for it. The most pressing need is an upgrade in the run defense, where the Dores were just 100th in the country in that stat in 2010.
DEFENSIVE LINE (rating: Fr, 5th SEC East, 11th overall)
The Commodores are led by two overachievers in particular, defensive end Tim Fugger and tackle T.J. Greenstone. If Greenstone is 100 percent this fall, he’ll give people some problems. He’s got a good motor and plays with good technique. Fugger has a quick first step and seems to make plays The rest of the line is a mystery. Either Rob Lohr or Colt Nichter will start at the other tackle slot; Lohr was the starter in 2010, but the position needs improvement. Walker May should start at the other end position. He’s quicker and more athletic than what Vandy usually has at end. Kyle Woestmann and Johnell Thomas will back up the end positions while Vince Taylor and Jared Morse fill in at tackle. The primary issue is size; there are no 300-pounders available, and players like Thomas would never see the field at other SEC schools. All eyes will be on signee Connor Hart, who Vanderbilt stole right out from under Michigan’s nose, to provide some punch off the corner. Thomas Ryan and Thad McHaney add depth.
LINEBACKERS (rating: Av, 3rd SEC East, 5th overall)
Vanderbilt always seems to have a top-level linebacker on the roster, and Chris Marve is that guy in 2011. A player similar in build and style to former Alabama star DeMeco Ryans, Marve is a tackling machine and undisputed team leader. His presence alone lifts the unit to a respectable status, but the other two starters are new and no one besides Marve really impressed in the spring. Archibald Barnes and Tristan Strong appear to be the leaders at the moment at strong and weak linebacker, respectively, although Chase Garnham will push Strong on the weakside. Freshman Blake Gowder backs up Barnes while DeAndre Jones and Dexter Daniels can play inside. Daniels will also figure in the mix at defensive end. Al Owens moved up from safety late in the spring and could get on the field somewhere. The Commodores need someone to step up and take the heat off Marve.
DEFENSIVE BACKS (rating: Av, 3rd SEC East, 6th overall)
This unit had better ability than stats in 2010. Strong safety Sean Richardson has prototypical size and good ability, while free safety Kenny Ladler was a freshman all-SEC selection. Cornerback Casey Hayward will probably play at the next level. The boundary cornerback slot is a bit up in the air, with Eddie Foster and Trey Wilson doing battle for it. Foster was the 2010 starter. Andre Hal adds depth there. Karl Butler, Eric Samuels and Javon Marshall add depth at safety along with Andre Simmons. Steven Clarke is available at either corner or safety. The Commodores also signed several players that should be able to help fairly early in their careers. Better coaching should yield better results in 2011.
SPECIAL TEAMS (rating: Pr, 6th SEC East, 12th overall)
Aside from the prowess of kick returner Warren Norman, there is not a lot here to be excited about. Placekicker Ryan Fowler had a terrible sophomore slump after a good freshman year, to the point that kickoff specialist Carey Spear could steal the job from him. Punter Richard Kent is serviceable. Punt coverage teams weren’t terrible, but Vandy can do better. Keeping Norman healthy while fixing the kicking situation is one of Franklin’s chief priorities in 2011.
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