Back in February, less than two months at the helm, Vanderbilt’s first-year football coach James Franklin put together a signing class that ranked 45th in the country, according to Scout.com.
Eight months later, a turnaround is in the works. The Commodores have already won as many games this season as they did the last two years combined.
But it’s not because Franklin inserted players he recruited and rolled out a young, freshman-laden lineup. In fact, it is quite the opposite.
Heading into Saturday’s 11:21 a.m. home game (SEC Network) against No. 8 Arkansas, Vanderbilt has played just five of 21 true freshmen. Only one, running back Jerron Seymour, has seen extended playing time, sharing carries with leading rusher Zac Stacy.
Thus, the Commodores’ success can be credited to that same group who struggled the last two seasons.
“I think he is just playing the best players available,” linebacker Chase Garnham said. “He opened up competition for every position and he just played the best players available, which we appreciate. It puts the best team out there and that is what we want.”
Of Vanderbilt’s 22 starters, 20 played last year — but only 12 (six on offense, six on defense) made two starts or more. Franklin and the new coaching staff might be sticking with the hand they were dealt but they aren’t hesitant to make changes.
Three-year starting quarterback Larry Smith is out and Jordan Rodgers is in. Two wide receivers who were atop the depth chart last year, Udom Umoh and the injured John Cole, were replaced by Chris Boyd, Jordan Matthews and Wesley Tate — a former running back.
At the same time, defensively, much of the same talent from last year has just performed better. The Commodores ranked 93rd in total defense last season. Through seven games, they have allowed 323.8 yards a game, which ranks 23rd in the country.
They were also tied for 108th in turnovers forced with 15 — and six came from cornerback Casey Hayward.
The senior is in the middle of it again, having picked off five passes already. He anchors a defense that has caused 20 turnovers, which is tied for sixth in the country. Cornerback Trey Wilson has three interceptions, returning two for touchdowns, after making just one start last year.
Wilson, a junior, was one of many young faces in the secondary that was thrown into the fire last year.
That experience has paid off. As a result, it has kept Franklin from burning redshirts and playing true freshmen.
“We had a lot of guys with a lot of experience that were strong already,” Hayward said. “You can’t take off experience over youth.”
The Commodores appear to be much improved in another area as well — they’re more confident, no small thing following back-to-back 2-10 seasons.
In a 34-0 loss at No. 2 Alabama, Vanderbilt trailed just 7-0 until the final minute of the second quarter. Down by 16 early in the third quarter to Georgia, Vanderbilt twice cut the lead to five and had two shots at the end zone in the final seven seconds.
But perhaps the biggest sign that this year might be different came in the second week. Ahead by 14 points in the first half, Vanderbilt let visiting Connecticut come back and take a 21-14 lead in the fourth quarter.
Afterwards, Smith, who was still the starting quarterback at the time, said it was a game Vanderbilt would have lost in 2010. But Franklin preached up and down on the sidelines that this was “the 2011 Vanderbilt.” The message hit home as the Commodores rallied and Carey Spear kicked a game-winning field goal with 2:56 left for a 24-21 win.
Vanderbilt pulled off the comeback with the same players that were so accustomed to seeing wins snatched away.
With five games remaining, the Commodores (4-3, 1-3 SEC) need just two wins to reach their first bowl since 2008 and second in the last 29 years.
“I see this team getting better every single week,” Franklin said. “It just makes me feel so good to know how hard these guys have worked for the last nine months for them to have some success. I know how bad they have wanted it.”