With college football teams set to open preseason camps in the coming days, The City Paper looks at programs of significant local interest.
Tuesday — Tennessee; Wednesday — Vanderbilt; Thursday — Tennessee State; Friday — Middle Tennessee State
VANDERBILT (2-10, 1-7 SEC in 2010)
James Franklin finally gets a chance to back up his talk. Since he was hired in December, the 39-year-old head coach has spoken about change and “doing very special things” at Vanderbilt.
His vision, attitude and personality have won recruits, fans and media. But will those attributes translate to wins on the field?
The first year might not be a fair assessment as the returning Commodores aren’t his recruits. But it will give him a taste of the Southeastern Conference.
There is plenty of experience with 21 starters returning, including nine seniors. Offensively, two-year starter Larry Smith will battle with junior college transfer Jordan Rodgers at quarterback. Running backs Warren Norman and Zac Stacy return after injury-riddled seasons and there are plenty of options at wide receiver and tight end. The depth of the offensive line, however, remains the biggest question mark and if that unit struggles so could the rest of the offense.
Defensively, the secondary is deep, Chris Marve is a force at linebacker and the line is anchored by seniors Tim Fugger and T.J. Greenstone.
Still, even if the offense begins to click for the first time in three years, is it enough for the Commodores to keep up in the SEC? Or will more talented teams lap them once again?
• One to watch (offense): Jordan Matthews, wide receiver. The 6-foot-3, 202-pounder became a scoring machine at the end of his freshman campaign in 2010. The Madison, Ala., native collected his only four touchdowns in the last four games, using his tall and lanky frame to his advantage.
In just five appearances, he caught 15 passes for 181 yards, which was the fifth most on the team. He enjoyed a successful spring as well and could emerge as the Commodores’ No. 1 receiver.
Matthews' vertical leap, soft hands and speed make him a dangerous weapon — one that could balance out the offense and open up the running game. If nothing else, expect him to be the go-to guy when the Commodores reach the red zone. Lob plays to the corner of the end zone have his name written all over it.
• One to watch (defense): Chris Marve, linebacker. Franklin said that not everyone’s starting job is open, including Marve’s. But it will be a huge shock if the Memphis native is not starting at middle linebacker when Sept. 3 rolls around.
The 6-foot, 242-pound senior is the league’s active career leader in tackles (306). Though he is a quiet leader, Marve is the one everyone looks to and is the motor of the defense. Expect the two-time All-SEC selection to be in the thick of things again as he leads a linebacker corps that is otherwise low on experience.
• 2010 in review: The Commodores ranked 10th or worst in the SEC in 20 different statistical categories. The offense was inept at just 16.9 points a game —10 points lower than the next league team. The defense wasn’t much better, giving up an average of 31 points and 419 yards every week.
The latter unit had performed better in recent years but perhaps struggled with fatigue given the offense's inability to move the chains. Punter Richard Kent set a school record and led the nation with 84 punts, and the defense spent nearly 35 minutes on the field each game. Injuries in the running game and defense also doomed the Commodores as they lost their last seven contests.
• Quote of note: “My first impression of Coach Franklin was completely misguided. When I first met him he seemed very timid, a very reserved type of guy. That is the complete opposite of what Coach James Franklin is on the football field. He is a very aggressive, in-your-face, knowledgeable coach. He has two sides to him as you would want your head coach to have. He earned my respect from day one.” — Marve
Sept. 3 vs. Elon: Might not look like a big game on paper but it is Franklin’s debut. A loss to an FCS opponent would be a major setback after he spent the last eight months talking about changing Vanderbilt’s football culture.
Sept. 24 at South Carolina: The first road game is against the defending SEC East champ. Vanderbilt has given the Gamecocks trouble recently, though. They won two straight in 2007-08 and hung tight in losses the last two seasons.
Oct. 8 at Alabama: This could be Franklin’s “Welcome to the SEC moment.” On the bright side, the Commodores have a bye the previous week, giving them two weeks to prepare for the Crimson Tide, who were picked by the media to win the league title.
Nov. 19 at Tennessee: A win would snap a five-game losing streak in the series and be just the second victory over the Vols in the last 29 years.