Were it not for the controversy surrounding Alabama and LSU’s two-game series for the national title in 2011, Vanderbilt would have been the story of the year. New head coach James Franklin guided the Commodores to a bowl trip and brought real excitement to the program, but as the old adage goes, it’s easier to become good than to stay good. This year’s team will be rebuilding its offensive line, and must fix the kicking game. Outside of that, Franklin needs to continue to recruit the way he’s done so far and keep building up the program’s talent base.
Returning Offensive Starters: 6 (SE, FL, LT, LG, QB, RB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 7 (RDE, RDT, LDT, MLB, LOLB, LCB, SS)
Returning Specialists: 2 (P, PK)
Projected Overall Record: 5-7 (AU, OM, UF, UGA, MIZ, NU, USC)
Projected SEC Record: 2-6 (AU, OM, UF, UGA, MIZ, USC)
Projected SEC East Record: 2-4 (UF, UGA, MIZ, USC)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Fr Defensive Line: Av
Running Backs: Vg Linebackers: Fr
Wide Receivers: Fr Defensive Backs: Fr
Offensive Line: Fr Special Teams: Pr
The Commodores run a version of the pro-style offense similar to what Alabama runs, but obviously there’s still a talent differential between Vanderbilt and the other SEC teams. The Commodores finally got their quarterback situation stabilized in 2011, and their running game and running back depth is actually the envy of several larger programs. The question marks mostly surround athleticism in the wide receiver core and the rebuilding of the offensive line, which underachieved in 2011 anyway.
QUARTERBACKS (rating: Fr; 6th SEC East, 11th overall)
Although Jordan Rodgers proved to be an improvement over Larry Smith after taking over for Smith in the middle of 2011, the jury is still out on whether he can be a weapon for an SEC offense. Rodgers is a dual-threat quarterback, and is dangerous throwing the ball on the run. But he’s not that accurate, and still threw for more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (9) in 2011. Fortunately, one area he’s proven to be quite potent in is the area of durability, a good trait to have given the state of the Commodore offensive line. Wyoming transfer Austin Carta-Samuels will be the backup, and his freshman season in Laramie was a strong one. Whether he can replicate that performance in the SEC remains to be seen. True freshman Patton Robinette flipped to Vandy from North Carolina in recruiting and has some skills.
RUNNING BACKS (rating: Vg; 2nd SEC East, 5th overall)
Just about anyone would love to have Zac Stacy running the ball for their team. Stacy ran for almost 1,200 yards and rushed for 14 touchdowns in 2011. He’s built like a manhole cover and if he can stay healthy, he’ll frustrate a lot of defenses in 2012. Depth is good behind him, with scatback Jerron Seymour and the veteran Warren Norman coming off the bench. True freshman Brian Kimbrow isn’t very big, but he comes to Vanderbilt with plenty of hype following him. Vanderbilt won’t use a fullback full-time, preferring to use an H-back alignment, but when the Commodores need a fullback, they have two good ones, Fitz Lassing and Marc Panu.
WIDE RECEIVERS (rating: Fr; 7th SEC East, 14th overall)
Despite having both starters back from a year ago, Vanderbilt needs much improvement here. Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd are the starters, and while they are reasonably reliable, they don’t really scare anyone. Height is their biggest advantage (both are over 6’3”), but speed is lacking and so is the knack for making big plays. Jonathan Krause gives them a veteran presence off the bench, along with John Cole and converted running back Wesley Tate. Redshirt freshman Josh Grady has some skills. Tight end is in flux at the moment; if senior Austin Monahan can get healthy and stay that way, he can be one of the better tight ends in the conference. But he hasn’t been able to stay off the training table so far. Kris Kentera and Austyn van der Wal will back him up and also compete for time at H-back with Fitz Lassing.
OFFENSIVE LINE (rating: Fr; 7th SEC East, 12th overall)
The left side of the line returns, and should be in good shape with Wesley Johnson at tackle and Ryan Seymour at guard. The rest is a mystery, though, and depth is poor. Spencer Pulley is expected to do good things at center, while Josh Jelesky, a senior who has played pretty much everywhere so far in his career, will be the new right guard. The potential problem spot is right tackle, where Andrew Bridges is set to start. There are really only three reserve linemen who figure to see much playing time, Joe Townsend at guard and center, freshman Jake Bernstein at guard and Chase White at tackle. True freshman Andrew Jelks is listed at second-team left tackle, but in a perfect world he’d need to redshirt and add weight.
Vanderbilt runs a 4-3 scheme that is fairly vanilla in the way it’s put together. In the past, the strength of the defense has typically been the secondary or the linebacker corps; this year, it may be the defensive line, and that’s not saying much. Vandy is typically out-sized, out-sped and out-gunned by opposing offenses, and personnel changes in the back seven make the defensive line’s progress even that more important. Last year the Commodores ranked 18th in total defense, 9th in pass efficiency defense, 36th in rushing defense and 18th in raw pass defense. Don’t look for a repeat of that performance in 2012.
DEFENSIVE LINE (rating: Av; 4th SEC East, 8th overall)
Size actually isn’t that much of a problem at the tackle positions, where Rob Lohr and Colt Nichter have established themselves as steady performers. Sophomores Vince Taylor and Barron Dixon figure to be the top backups along with junior Jared Morse. The question marks are primarily on the outside. Rush end Walker May could probably play just about anywhere in the SEC, as he has good quickness off the line and good size. His counterpart, though, Johnell Thomas, is smaller than a lot of SEC linebackers but will be asked to play strongside end. Depth is provided by Jimmy Stewart and Kyle Woestmann, both of whom need a bit of seasoning yet. Another freshman, Caleb Azubike, will get snaps as well following Thad McHaney having to give up football due to injury.
LINEBACKERS (rating: Fr; 6th SEC East, 12th overall)
There will be tons of pressure on Chase Garnham, who moves to middle linebacker to replace Chris Marve. Garnham had a good season at outside linebacker in 2011, but if he can’t successfully make the move inside, Vandy has problems. Archibald Barnes and Tristan Strong were set to give the Commodores two senior starters at the outside spots, but Strong decided to leave the program. Junior Karl Butler must now step into Strong’s starting role, even though he is just 215 pounds. Depth will be provided by either freshmen (Kellen Williams, Darreon Herring) or players from other positions, such as long snapper Andrew East. Herring has a lot of promise, but health is key regardless.
DEFENSIVE BACKS (rating: Fr; 7th SEC East, 13th overall)
Graduation really hurt the Commodores, who must find a new starting cornerback and free safety. Trey Wilson returns at cornerback and Javon Marshall at strong safety, although Marshall isn’t 100 percent healthy. Thankfully, the reserve safeties, Eric Samuels and Andrew Williamson, appear to be solid players. Kick returner Andre Hal appears to be Wilson’s counterpart at cornerback, with veterans Eddie Foster and Steven Clarke backing him up. The competition at cornerback figures to last throughout the season.
SPECIAL TEAMS (rating: Pr; 6th SEC East, 13th overall)
The placekicking was pretty much an unmitigated disaster in 2011, to the point that perhaps Vanderbilt shouldn’t be given any points for returning experience. Ryan Fowler and Casey Spear are competing at kicker, but neither showed he could hit a kick under pressure in 2011, as the duo missed almost as many kicks as they made. Punter Richard Kent fared much better, averaging more than 42 yards per kick. The return game was nothing special, and the Commodore coaches are looking for more out of Andre Hal, Steven Clarke and Jonathan Krause.
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