A sea of red consumed Vanderbilt football practice on Wednesday night.
Coach James Franklin cautioned, however, not to read too much into the 11 players who wore red "injury" jerseys, most of them watching from the sidelines.
“We usually hide the red injury jerseys from you guys on Wednesday,” Franklin told reporters. “With us not having a game [this week]… we’re trying to get guys healthy. There were some guys that were in red jerseys [Wednesday] that we could have pushed if it was game week and probably would have [played]. But I told [athletic trainer Tom Bossung] I’d rather not test them right now. There is no reason for it. Let’s give them another couple days of rest.”
After getting banged up in a 21-3 loss at South Carolina last weekend, Vanderbilt (3-1, 1-1 SEC) sits idle this week, giving the Commodores an extra week to recover before playing at No. 3 Alabama (4-0, 1-0) on Oct. 8.
On Tuesday, it was announced that starting linebacker Tristan Strong suffered a season-ending leg injury. The fourth-year junior will be replaced by fellow fourth-year junior Archibald Barnes.
Starting quarterback Larry Smith also failed to finish Saturday's game and did not participate with the first-team offense in the last 30 minutes of practice open to the media. Smith has exited every game this season and against South Carolina he appeared to crash helmets with a defender while trying to recover one of his two fumbles. He left late in the third quarter and did not return.
“I think over the course of the first four weeks, my body has taken a pretty good beating,” said Smith, who has been sacked 15 times. “I think it finally caught up with me Saturday night.”
Smith described the injury as a “stinger” to his neck and said he did not suffer a concussion. He said “more than likely” he will start against Alabama. Through four games, he is 50-of-87 passing for 412 yards, with three touchdowns and three interceptions.
Backup Jordan Rodgers ran the first-team offense on Wednesday. He has played in every game this season and is 9-for-14 for 85 yards. When asked about possibly starting Rodgers, Franklin stayed firm with his decision to lean on Smith.
“Larry gives us the best chance to be successful,” Franklin said. “That is no disrespect to Rodgers but based on what we evaluate every single day at practice — decision-making, grading the film — by far Larry gives us the best chance to be successful. Like I said before, it is not even fair for people to even try to evaluate [Smith]. We’re not catching the ball the way we should be catching the ball. We’re not protecting the way we should be protecting… Trust me, Larry gives us the best chance to win.”
Many of those wearing red were reserves who have been sparingly used — some not all — this season.
But starting defensive tackle Rob Lohr and rotating defensive ends Kyle Woestmann and Johnell Thomas sat out, as did starting left guard Chase White.
Wide receiver John Cole, who has not played in two weeks, was not wearing red but was not a factor. He watched while wearing an orthopedic boot on his right foot.
Wide receiver Jonathan Krause and tight end Brandon Barden also wore red on Wednesday but practiced. Krause, who caught a career-high nine passes for 55 yards on Saturday, worked with the first-team offense.
“He is just banged up,” Franklin said. “This rest will do him good. He is still practicing but wearing a red jersey so people aren’t banging on him.”
Barden is still recovering from an ankle sprain that he suffered in the second game against Connecticut. Franklin said Barden was set to travel to South Carolina but at the last minute, Bossung decided it would be best if Barden didn’t make the trip.
“I plan that he is going to be available for us and we need him,” Franklin said.
Another player who Franklin has labeled as available the last four weeks is running back Warren Norman. The junior is still recovering from offseason knee surgery and has not played. The Commodores netted just four rushing yards against South Carolina. But Franklin said he didn’t think about putting in Norman, the team’s leading rusher the last two years.
“We have Warren as the emergency backup,” Franklin said. “If we felt like Warren was the best back, he’d be starting for us right now. It doesn’t make sense to put him in there. The running game was struggling, the passing game was struggling because we couldn’t block their d-line. It is as simple as that.”