Depth, competition at running back sets standard Vanderbilt seeks at all spots

Sunday, August 7, 2011 at 10:09pm

In a month’s time, college football teams around the country will try to narrow the depth charts and settle on starters for their season openers on Labor Day Weekend.

For Vanderbilt, however, one position continues to attract more candidates. As the offense becomes more and more crowded with running backs, first-year head coach James Franklin has no objections.

“I feel better about it. I do,” he said after Saturday night’s practice. “That is the model at that position that I’m looking for in terms of depth and competition. I think we have three and then an evolving four backs I think we can play with.”

Juniors Warren Norman and Zac Stacy and redshirt-sophomore Wesley Tate return after each dealt with injury in 2010. The trio entered Friday’s opening day of preseason camp healthy and ready to contribute to an area that has been the offense’s biggest strength the last two years.

They might have company if Jerron Seymour continues to perform like he has over the Commodores’ first two practices. A few times already, the 5-foot-7, 190-pound freshman has emerged from behind the offensive line and displayed his speed.

“He has a tremendous burst,” Franklin said. “He is not the tallest guy in the world but he is 190 pounds and he can accelerate and can change direction. He learns extremely well. He is very intelligent. I think everybody has been impressed with him so far.”

Seymour, a native of Hialeah, Fla., broke off a couple big runs on Friday before he scored a touchdown Saturday during 11-on-11 drills after catching a pass in the backfield.

“Coming out of high school [my size] was a big issue to a lot of recruiters, but Coach Franklin didn’t see it that way,” Seymour said. “He saw how explosive I was on my film. He knew the type of player I was, and I’m glad he had the trust in me to bring me into his program. I’m just going to prove a lot of teams out there wrong and what they missed out on.”

The last two years, Vanderbilt's ground game has not missed out on much, thanks to the duo of Norman and Stacy.

Norman has been the team’s top rusher both seasons but his 2010 campaign featured just eight games due to wrist and knee injuries. Both required surgery, which also forced him to miss spring practices.

The 5-foot-10, 196-pounder, who doubles as a kickoff returner, is eager to get back to prove his freshman season wasn’t a fluke. In 2009, he set the Southeastern Conference freshman record for all-purpose yards (1,941) and was named the league’s freshman of the year.

Stacy complements Norman well. A runner who also excels off cuts and bursts around the edge, he has been second in rushing over the last two seasons. The 5-foot-9, 208-pounder has gained more than 800 yards, playing in just nine games last fall after suffering a concussion against Florida.

Then there is Tate, who redshirted the 2009 season and carried the ball just 40 times for 140 yards in 11 games while battling an ankle injury. The 6-foot-1, 225-pounder has been categorized as a bigger, more physical back by his teammates and coaches. But he possesses speed as well; he won the 100-meter state championship while prepping at nearby Pope John Paul II High School.

“I feel like me and Zac have similar running styles and Tate is definitely a change of pace with his size,” Norman said. “He is also pretty fast too. I think we definitely have a great combination of speed and power in the backfield.”

Vanderbilt might have even more weapons, too. In addition to Seymour, freshman Mitchell Hester and redshirt junior Micah Powell, who used to play linebacker and safety, have all taken reps with the running backs.

While this sort of depth might appear as a threat to some players, the Commodores say the more the merrier.

“We all can’t carry the ball 30 times a game,” Norman said. “Having three [or more] good backs with us here is a good way to keep us refreshed. When we do go in, we are more willing to make a play because we are not getting as many carries. I definitely feel like it is an advantage for us.”

Briefly

• For the second straight day, the Commodores didn’t practice in full gear but Franklin called Saturday’s workout the “best practice we’ve had since I’ve been here," including the spring.

The mood seemed more intense. Plays lasted an extra second or two as players battled until the whistle blew and there was a lot more talking and yelling — from the players and coaches.

“We still have some maturing to do. But it is one thing to say you want to be great, it is another to come out and do it and work at it. That was a step in the right direction,” Franklin said. “I saw them fight through it. It was a little cooler but we practiced a lot harder, faster. We had guys cramping. They got back up. [Freshman defensive end] Jimmy Stewart’s running and throwing up the whole time he is running and he kept running. A lot of guys would tank it at that point. I saw some really good signs [Saturday] of toughness.”

• There were a few more players wearing redshirt injury jerseys on Saturday. Defensive back Steven Clarke, quarterback/punter Taylor Hudson, offensive lineman James Lewis and defensive end Walker May sat out for the second straight day. Joining them were defensive end Johnell Thomas, center Logan Stewart and wide receiver Brady Brown.

After apparent cramping, wide receiver Chris Boyd had to be carted off. Boyd didn’t put much weight on his right foot as he was assisted by two athletic trainers.

Franklin said he would not address injuries during the preseason and would issue a weekly injury report every Thursday once the season starts.

“We don’t have any injuries. Everybody is a 100 percent healthy on our entire team,” Franklin said with a straight face before cracking a smile.

• Vanderbilt took Sunday off to sign autographs and greet fans as a part of the annual Dore Jam Fan Days. The Commodores resume practice on Monday. They will practice with full gear for the first time on Tuesday. Their only open practice to the public will be at 9 a.m. this Saturday at the John Rich Practice Facility.