To earn that description, Vanderbilt’s first-year head coach wants to see some consistency out of his young unit. He can’t dispute, though, the recent results.
The Commodores (4-5, 1-5 SEC) wideouts are coming off their two most successful receiving games heading into Saturday’s 11:21 a.m. kickoff (SEC Network) against visiting Kentucky (4-5, 1-4 SEC). Wide receivers made 12 catches for 189 yards against Arkansas on Oct. 29. Last weekend against Florida, they had 13 receptions for 229 yards – accounting for all but 68 of quarterback Jordan Rodgers’ career-high 297 passing yards.
“We’re getting better,” Franklin said. “I can’t tell you whether it is the receivers making plays that is building confidence in Jordan or the other way around. I don’t know. But we’ve got something going good right now.”
Since Rodgers became the starter three weeks ago, he has thrown for at least 150 yards in each game, including two straight 200-plus yard performances. Former starter Larry Smith’s season high was 140.
Jordan Matthews, a 6-foot-3, 202-pound sophomore, has caught a touchdown in three of the last four games. In his last two, he has 15 catches for 321 yards, propelling him to the team lead in both receptions (23) and yards (438). He set career-highs with receptions (nine) and yards (170) against Florida.
It is a big difference from the first five games, in which he caught just five passes for 63 yards.
“I think he struggled with that a little bit as a lot of young guys do. You work hard and maybe you don’t get the results you want,” Franklin said. “Life isn’t always fair ... but you just keep plugging through and he is a great example of that for our whole team. It is starting to pay off for him and the team.”
Franklin said Matthews has improved in releasing from contact with cornerbacks and shoring up his route running.
Strength and conditioning coach Dwight Galt, along with Franklin, has also put Matthews, Chris Boyd, Wesley Tate and the other receivers through tough tests in practice.
Last week, while the players caught football from the JUGS passing machine, Franklin and Galt “were crawling all over them, grabbing their arms, pulling their facemasks down, punching them in the ribs.”
“We were making them catch the ball in a contested position and being very, very uncomfortable, almost to an extreme,” Franklin said. “At one point, I think Jordan actually dislocated his finger and I told him to pop it back in and keep going. I think that toughness that they are going to catch the ball no matter what, is starting to translate on the field.”
Vanderbilt’s top four receivers (in terms of yards) are sophomores or younger – Matthews, Boyd, Tate and Jonathan Krause. Boyd, similar in build to Matthews at 6-foot-4 and 203 pounds, has been the most consistent receiver with at least two receptions in six games. He leads the team with five receiving touchdowns.
With targets the size of Boyd and Matthews, the Commodores have the potential to be a handful for opposing defenses.
“We can be really dangerous,” Rodgers said. “We showed we can put points up, we showed we can put yards up on anybody, really, when we are clicking – and we are. Chris Boyd and Jordan Matthews have been playing awesome. My job is to give them a catchable ball, whether that is a little bit behind them ... giving those guys and their big bodies a chance to make a play. They’ve been doing that. It makes my job a lot easier.”
• Kicker battle: Franklin, following Wednesday's workout, declined to name his starting kicker for Saturday. Vanderbilt has missed four of its last five field goal attempts.
Junior Ryan Fowler made his first start of the season against Florida last week but his only attempt – a 32-yarder – was partially blocked. He took over for sophomore Carey Spear, who missed three of his last four, including a potential game-tying 27-yarder against Arkansas on Oct. 29.
“When you miss a couple field goals it is a little bit concerning,” Franklin said. “We have done a lot of work on this week. We put a little bit of extra emphasis on it. ... Neither one of them has taken the job and separated himself.”
• Injury update: Linebacker Chase Garnham has missed the last two games due to a groin injury. The sophomore did not practice Wednesday and is listed as questionable for Saturday. Al Owens has started in his place.
Left guard Ryan Seymour wore sweats on Wednesday and Franklin said he would be a game-time decision. Redshirt-freshman Chase White, who has started three times this season, is listed as his backup.
• Coaching matchup: Saturday’s game will be the first game in SEC history that features two African-American head coaches.
Kentucky’s Joker Phillips is in his second year at the helm after holding the coach-in-waiting title. Franklin held the same title at Maryland, where he was the offensive coordinator for the last three years. Sylvester Croom, now the running backs coach for the St. Louis Rams, is only other African-American to lead (Mississippi State, 2004-08) an SEC team.