Vanderbilt’s coaching staff has to gauge what it wants on the field at wide receiver: potential or experience. The Commodores’ receiving corps has plenty of both, but only so many snaps in a game to implement them.
Among the most exciting developments at workouts this summer were those that included a dynamic group of freshman receivers: Jonathan Krause, Jordan Matthews, Chris Boyd and Trent Pruitt. They brought new vigor to the monotonous summer drills as they competed with VU’s veteran receivers.
By the end of preseason camp some, particularly Krause and Matthews, looked ready to play on Saturdays.
But the top of the depth chart is presently filled by returning players. Redshirt-junior Udom Umoh, redshirt-sophomore John Cole and senior Turner Wimberly all contributed in 2009. Cole led the Commodores in receiving with 36 receptions, 382 yards and one touchdown. Umoh had 20 receptions, 267 yards and a touchdown. Wimberly snagged 12 catches for 99 yards.
Last Saturday against Northwestern, the three lined up at receiver on the majority of snaps.
Yet in terms of physical presence, the freshman wide outs are ahead of their older counterparts. Boyd and Matthews, both hovering around 6-foot-4, bring size that the Commodores have been lacking at receiver. Wimberly is the next tallest contributing receiver at 6-foot-1.
Krause, who boasted a 10.9 second 100 yard-dash in high school, has the most threatening breakaway speed in the unit. The freshmen seem more than talented enough to get on the field. What they don’t have is the game experience of Cole, Umoh or Wimberly.
And therein lies the rub; VU’s freshmen talent at receiver isn’t entirely field ready yet.
“You know some of these guys are more talented, or have an opportunity to be more talented than some of the older players,” coach Robbie Caldwell said. “But right now they don’t know what to do so they play slow.”
In the game against Northwestern, however, the freshman Krause provided the biggest spark. After being penalized for holding on his first play, he eventually caught four balls for 55 yards. He hit the turbo button and turned one screen pass into a 24-yard race down the sideline.
Receivers’ coach Charlie Fisher said Krause got the call before other freshman receivers due to his practice habits.
“It just seemed like every practice he kind of came out of nowhere to make a play, do something to turn your heads,” Fisher explained. “You’ve got to reward that. And he did that Saturday night; he came out and gave us a spark.”
Comparatively, Umoh caught three balls for 31 yards, Cole four for 15, and Wimberly had one 37-yard reception on a well-executed crossing route.
Fisher said he was pleased with the efforts of all three players, but he insisted that playing time is based on practice and game productivity.
“We’re going to play who deserves to play,” he said. “If you go out there and don’t get it done we’re going to move on to somebody else. I’ve got numbers.”
The sure-handed Matthews, who is a second cousin to Jerry Rice, appears next in line to see serious action. He lined up on a handful of downs against Northwestern but never had a pass thrown his way.
“Some things are difficult, some we can’t help,” Caldwell said. “But others we can put them in situations where they’re running something a lot simpler. We’ve got to do a better job as a coaching staff getting them in the right position. We’ve got to find out something they can do and do it consistently.”
As Vanderbilt’s season progresses, expect Caldwell and Fisher to rely more on youth at receiver.
“It’s going to take some time to sort it out and that’s all we can do is go practice-by-practice, game-by-game,” Fisher said.
• Caldwell would not elaborate fully, but he hinted that Big Ten officials had sent some apologetic gesture through the SEC offices for a controversial call in Vanderbilt’s season opener against Northwestern. A high hit with less than 2two minutes left, which appeared to be shoulder-to-shoulder, between safety Jay Fullam and Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa resulted in a 15-yard personal foul. The call eliminated any chance of a Commodore comeback. Caldwell was more interested in moving on.
“What good does it do?” he said. “The same people will be working the games. We’ll be rolling on.”
• Running back Zac Stacy, who rushed for 69 yards and a touchdown against Northwestern, may be taking another step in recovering from a knee-sprain suffered August 13. He is considering removing a knee brace that he has been playing in since returning.
“He’s been practicing with it, I don’t know what the decision is,” Caldwell said. “I’m afraid to ask, I don’t want to know too much about it he did so well [against Northwestern]. I’ve always said I believe you can play in one of those things and he proved it.”
• Local youth football team the Brentwood Blaze observed Vanderbilt practice on Wednesday. Several players signed autographs for them afteward.
“I was just tickled they wanted to come and I’m glad we had enough popsicles for them,” Caldwell said.