The fireworks over Vanderbilt Stadium last Sunday, after the Black and Gold game, marked the conclusion of the spring season for the Commodores. The event also wrapped up chapter one of James Franklin’s first year as Vanderbilt’s new head coach.
Here’s a look at what we learned from the past month.
• The quarterback job belongs to Larry Smith — for now. In 19 starts over the past two seasons, Smith is 4-15 (1-12 in Southeastern Conference games). Still, the rising senior leads over Charlie Goro, Jordan Rodgers and John Townsley.
Goro, a redshirt sophomore, has yet to make a pass in a collegiate game and practiced with the second-team offense this spring. Rodgers, the younger brother of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, didn’t participate in live repetitions as he healed from shoulder surgery. The injury kept him from playing last fall, after he transferred from a junior college in California. Townsley was one of six walk-ons who made the team after attending Franklin’s open student tryouts.
Smith showed glimpses of improvement during practices and the spring game. For example, he found Jonathan Krause in between two defenders for a 49-yard gain on a nice play-action pass in the scrimmage. But he also fell into the same trap that plagued him in 2010. Twice in the spring game, Krause had his team inside the 20-yard line and failed to deliver a touchdown. He also missed open receivers and threw flat-footed, which led to an overthrown ball and interception.
Things could get interesting in the summer, though. Vanderbilt has three incoming freshmen quarterbacks, including four-star recruit Lafonte Thourogood. The Virginia Beach, Va., native decommitted from Virginia Tech and signed with Vanderbilt in February. As a 6-foot-2, 225-pound dual threat quarterback, he could fit into the mix immediately.
• After Jordan Matthews caught four touchdown passes in four games to end his freshman campaign, the 6-foot-4, 205-pound wide receiver continued to stand out this spring. He was Smith’s main target during practice and scrimmages, and used his length and mitts to snag catches on fade routes in the end zone on several occasions. He led all receivers in the spring game with seven catches for 103 yards.
Matthews started just one game in 2010 and entered the spring on the second team. But his size and athleticism might boost him to the front and give him a chance to be a playmaker in an area that met with injury this spring, when John Cole got hurt (ankle).
If Matthews and Krause continue to improve, it could bring balance to an offense loaded with talent in the backfield. Running backs Zac Stacy and Wesley Tate will be joined again in the fall by Warren Norman, the SEC Freshman of the Year in 2009. He sat out this spring, healing from wrist and knee surgeries.
• The defense features the playmakers. Veterans Chris Marve (linebacker), Tim Fugger (defensive end), Casey Hayward (cornerback) and Sean Richardson (safety) were the staples on defense — as expected — with younger players emerging around them.
Defensive tackles Colt Nichter and Kyle Woestmann combined for three sacks, seven tackles, three defended passes and an interception during the spring game. Also on the line, defensive end Johnell Thomas was aggressive and in the backfield all spring and took advantage of time with the first team.
Safety Kenny Ladler improved after starting nine games as a freshman last fall, and junior Eric Samuels seemed to solidify a spot in the secondary after he moved from there to the backfield last season. Plus, the Commodores will get back last year’s starters T.J. Greenstone (defensive tackle), Rob Lohr (defensive tackle) and Walker May (defensive end), who were out with
injuries this spring.
• The offensive line, however, could pose problems. With just nine offensive linemen, that unit played for both teams during the spring game.
The line took a hit before spring even started with the news that guard/center James Kittredge had violated university rules. He is not enrolled at Vanderbilt but could return in the spring of 2012. Then center Logan Stewart went down with an injury after Jabo Burrow missed a couple practices due to a head injury. Burrow returned for the spring game and played at guard.
Tackles Wesley Johnson and Caleb Welchans snapped the ball on Sunday, and rust was obvious with some bad ones. Plus, the line was whistled for several false starts and allowed eight sacks in the game.
“The development of that position from now until Elon [the season opener on Sept. 3] is going to be very, very important to our success,” Franklin said. “We’ve got to step up — myself, [offensive line coach Herb] Hand, [offensive coordinator John] Donovan and [strength coach Dwight] Galt and his staff. I think that’s also why it’s going to be attractive for us to recruit some guys, because they know they’re going to have an opportunity to get in and play.”
• Franklin, the enthusiastic 39-year-old head coach, made it apparent this spring that he’ll be visible and active with his team. His assistant coaches will handle their responsibilities, but he’ll be right there, blowing the whistle and making his voice heard loud and clear.
On the surface, his first spring seemed to go well. Players said the transition with the new coaching staff went smoothly, and they welcomed Franklin’s intensity.
Of course, no games have been played, and the Commodores have battled against only each other. Yet the optimism was apparent after this spring. To Franklin, that alone is extremely valuable.
“Talking to our kids, they say we’re a better football team right now than we were at any point last year,” Franklin said. “Whether that’s true or not, they believe that, and that’s important. ... From talking to people, we’re much further ahead at this point than we were last year. I just want to build on that.”