Low on suspense and heavy on returning starters, Vanderbilt coach James Franklin released his first depth chart on Wednesday with a sense of comfort.
Though he would have liked to see more competition at quarterback — senior Jordan Rodgers was named the starter — Franklin is confident in his two-deep, which features 16 returning starters on the first-team offense and defense and five true freshmen on the second string.
“I don’t think there is anything mind-blowing,” he said. “I feel good about that. I think we’ve put ourselves in a situation where we have more depth than we had in the past. I feel a lot better in where we are in terms of depth this year and going into the season.”
Rodgers, who started the last seven games in 2011, was the presumed starter since spring workouts. He only stretched his lead in preseason camp, which ended Tuesday, a little more than a week before the Aug. 30 season opener against South Carolina. The dual threat fine-tuned his short passing game and got into a groove with his favorite target last year, 6-foot-3 Jordan Matthews.
Wyoming transfer Austyn Carta-Samuels and true freshman Patton Robinette, who enrolled last January, didn’t give Rodgers much of a scare as they learned the offense.
“I guess that’s a safe statement to say you would have liked it to have been a little more competitive,” Franklin said. “But you can also make the argument that maybe it was competitive and Jordan just kept progressing. I think if you look at Austyn, he is probably similar to what Jordan was last year and maybe a little bit ahead of that actually. If you take it from that perspective, our depth is probably a little bit better at that position.”
The Commodores also return their top three receivers — Matthews, Chris Boyd and Jonathan Krause — along with 1,000-yard running back Zac Stacy and four starting offensive linemen.
Defensively, three starters return to the line, led by defensive tackle Rob Lohr. Undersized Johnell Thomas (6-foot) gets the nod at one of the defensive end spots over Kyle Woestmann. Two starting linebackers and two defensive backs are also back. While the depth chart was riddled with experienced, youth also stuck out.
Four-star running back Brian Kimbrow was the headliner among freshmen who showed up on the second team. Andrew Jelks and Adam Butler were listed behind veterans Wesley Johnson and Ryan Seymour on the left side of the offensive line, respectively. Defensive end Caleb Azibuke, a McGavock grad, and linebacker Darreon Herring, another mid-term enrollee, could also see action right away.
“I feel like our freshmen have come along with flying colors,” senior linebacker Archibald Barnes said. “The maturity they have shown has been awesome. They got in their playbooks when we needed them to and started to really mature. I saw them put their heads down and really focus.”
• Kicking battle: One of the few positions up in the air heading into camp was starting kicker.
Franklin gave the nod to senior Ryan Fowler, who started his first two years before junior Carey Spear dethroned him last August. Inconsistency reared its ugly head, though, as both kickers were shuffled in and out last year. Franklin said statistics were kept all camp and Fowler had the better results.
Fowler will kick field goals and extra points while Spear will handle kickoffs.
“It was close, probably closer than the quarterback battle,” Franklin said. “I have confidence in both of those guys. But I think from the beginning of camp to the end ... it was a close competition but Fowler is our field goal kicker.”
• Eight captains: Franklin announced six more captains for a total of eight.
Joining Rodgers and defensive end Walker May, who were named in the spring, were Barnes, Spear, Johnson, Thomas, Stacy and safety Javon Marshall.
The players and coaches voted on the captains, which consist of four juniors and four seniors.
“That just shows how much leadership we have on this team,” Marshall said. “It is a big comfort factor for the younger guys. Really, when they come here they’re stripped away from their parents and everything. It is a new beginning and a new start. Really, we’re those role models for them. Having eight guys ... there is always someone here for them.”
• Injury update: Though defensive tackle Colt Nichter and middle linebacker Chase Garnham spent most of preseason camp on the sidelines wearing red injury jerseys, Franklin said he didn’t hesitate to put them on the first team.
“They’re starters because they’re ready to go,” he said. “They’re vets – they timed it up perfect. They were banged up a little bit early on during two-a-days then, miraculously, right before game time, they’re ready to go – fresh legs and locked in. The thing that is good about those guys is that they’re very mature so when they weren’t taking reps they were really locked in and paying attention.”