The sunshine beams down on the John Rich practice facility, reflecting off the Commodore gold helmets as they dart in and out of drills.
The crack of shoulder pads and the intermittent shrieks of a whistle intercept the boisterous sounds of encouragement from the coaching staff and members of the football team.
In the distance, the trees are blooming, indicating a changing of seasons. Spring is upon us, and with spring comes hope for all 120 Division I FBS schools.
The spring represents a clean slate and a fresh start for every program. Auburn and TCU are still undefeated this year, but so are San Jose State and Akron — two programs that combined to finish 2-25 last season. It is one of the beauties of spring football where the glass is always half full, but never half empty.
Every team starts with a clean slate in the spring, but some are a little cleaner than others. Twenty-one teams will break in new coaches in 2011 — among the new faces is Vanderbilt’s James Franklin. For the first time since 2002, someone other than Bobby Johnson is leading the Commodores through spring drills.
With a new direction and the thoughts of a new season on the horizon, hope springs eternal for the Commodores.
The work for 2011 began months ago in the weight room, but it is what is accomplished on the field during these 15 spring practices that can rejuvenate a team.
“There is a fresh start in the spring and you don’t feel as pressed for time as you do in the fall,” said rising senior quarterback Larry Smith, who is going through his fourth year of spring practice.
“During the fall, it is all the build up for the next game, but the spring allows us to have some days off in between practices and get some rest and hit the books.”
The spring is typically a time to see which young players are ready to make the next leap after being saddled behind now-departed seniors on the depth chart. However, with a new coaching staff, everyone from rising seniors down to redshirt freshmen are starting from the same place. Their first step is learning a new system.
“Spring ball is a lot about fundamentals, but being in a new system, you try to get that system down pat first,” senior safety Sean Richardson said. “As we are finishing up the spring, everyone is getting the system down and everything is coming pretty natural, and we can focus on just playing football and getting better fundamentally.”
Everything did not come so naturally to Richardson at first. One of the noted changes in spring practice under Franklin is the emphasis he places on the defense pursuing the ball carrier. Instead of a play being whistled dead upon first contact, the ball carrier continues downfield while the defense chases.
“It was a lot different because we were used to having one person tag the ball carrier and that was it,” Richardson said. “I wasn’t used to everyone having to tag the ball carrier so on the first day I got called out and I got sent to the sideline for a play.”
The emphasis on everyone finishing plays is in line with what the team’s veterans note as the biggest change in practices thus far: tempo.
“We don’t stop moving the whole time we are out here,” Smith said.
Richardson believes that the team has already benefited from the increased tempo. “It just took some time to get used to how Coach Franklin wanted the tempo of practice to be, but now everything is very organized and the whole team and staff is really doing their part and are all on the same page.”
On Sunday, Vanderbilt’s spring practice will commence with the Black and Gold Spring Game at 6 p.m. CT at Vanderbilt Stadium. The game is free to attend and will feature a postgame fireworks display among other activities.
Although, Vanderbilt has held spring scrimmages in the past, Sunday’s will be different from what fans are used to seeing. Instead of just playing series with the first, second and third team offenses working separately, the squad will be divided into two teams and score will be kept.
“It is something different that we haven’t done in the past,” Smith said. “I’m really excited about that. I think it will be exciting to have some guys on defense that you are not used to having on your team during the spring game.
“They are going to try to have even teams on both sides of the ball, and we will go out there and compete and have a good showing for the fans.”
For Vanderbilt’s rising seniors, there is an added sense of urgency this spring. The class was in their freshmen season during Vanderbilt’s magical 2008 run to the Music City Bowl, and want to return to that level after back-to-back 2-10 seasons.
“Every spring is more important than the last one, but as a senior, you want to go out on a high note,” Richardson said. “There is always room to improve and get better so it is just another opportunity.”
One week of practice remains in the spring before the team will turn its attention to final exams as the semester comes to a close and the players head their separate directions for the summer.
“Learning is the main thing for us this time of year,” Smith said. “It is a long, grueling process, but we have to take it one day at a time and get better every day.”
It may sound like a typical sports cliché, but in the spring when everyone is undefeated and aspirations of conference titles are still within reach, teams will exit spring practice very much believing that the improvements made in the spring will lead to a memorable journey in the fall. It is one of the beauties of spring football.