All spring Vanderbilt coach James Franklin believed the more reps his younger players got, the narrower the gap between the reserves and starters.
For one day at least, the Commodores showed little drop off with the backups.
The Black team, comprised of projected starters, needed a last-second field goal to rally past the younger Gold for a 17-15 victory in the spring game on Saturday at Vanderbilt Stadium.
The Gold consisted of second- and third-string players, many of who haven’t played in a game. But Tip McKenzie, Darien Bryant, Torey Agee, Patton Robinette, Johnny McCrary and several others gave an announced attendance of 14,000 an extended look at their potential.
“Coach Franklin preaches about playing with a chip on your shoulder,” redshirt-freshman defensive end Stephen Weatherly said. “The Gold team, we were out there trying to prove ourselves, trying to fight for a spot on the field, trying to prove to the coaches we can go out there and hang with the big boys. All spring that is how we’ve been preparing.”
The Gold team kept the game competitive and didn’t allow the Black to score until nearly five minutes remained in the first half. Then, when it looked like the Black would cruise to the win, the Gold rallied from a 14-point deficit.
Robinette, projected as the backup to starter Austyn Carta-Samuels, tossed a seven-yard touchdown to Jerron Seymour early in the fourth quarter. After an interception by sophomore Jahmel McIntosh, McCrary heaved a 40-yard touchdown to McKenzie with 4:40 left. The freshmen then connected on the two-point conversion to take a 15-14 lead. McKenzie led all receivers with 83 yards on four catches.
The Black needed to convert a fourth-and-25 from their own 20 — they did so with a 44-yard pass from Carta-Samuels to Chris Boyd — and a 25-yard field goal from Carey Spear to escape with the win.
“When you’re not on the first team it definitely kind of gets to you,” Robinette, a redshirt-freshman, said. “But it is a good thing because you come out and make plays and you make a game of it. I know most people weren’t expecting a game. But I think we all on the Gold team knew it was going to be.”
Seldom-used sophomore linebacker Kellen Williams led all players with eight tackles. Weatherly followed with seven. Bryant had 2.5 sacks and Agee added two. The Gold sacked Carta-Samuels four times and had a total of six sacks.
The game featured 12 sacks and 19 tackles for loss as the offensive line had to make some last-minute adjustments when an injury forced starting center Joe Townsend out of the contest.
“I think the defensive line is different,” Franklin said of a unit in which he rotates as many as five players at a time. “It looks different and plays different than we’ve ever had here.”
While depth is much improved on the offensive line — 13 players this year compared to seven last spring — Franklin voiced his concerns about several skill positions. At tight end, he is looking for more help behind Kris Kentera and Dillon van der Wal — the pair accounted for all five catches by tight ends. He has also repeatedly said that the wide receivers corps gets thin after Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd.
Come August, though, the pot will get bigger. Included in a group of 21 freshmen and a junior college transfer arriving on campus for fall camp will be five wide receivers and three tight ends.
As this spring benefited the younger and experienced players, Franklin hopes the summer will remind his team nothing is guaranteed.
“Camp should be unbelievably competitive,” Franklin said. “We want to make it as competitive as we possibly can and that is why we won’t name starters until two, three weeks into camp. What does that tell you if you’re a freshman? You should need a chance to compete. I want all these freshmen, all these guys to know they have a legitimate chance to impact our roster and be a starter.”