Vanderbilt football enters a new era this fall. When James Franklin took the helm in December, he promised to guide the Commodore football team to a championship level competitor. This season, Franklin will lay the foundation for a great college football turnaround story.
At the conclusion of spring drills, Franklin declined to announce a tentative depth chart, calling for further competition for positions during preseason camp.
QUARTERBACK The quarterback position will undoubtedly invite the most speculation, conversation and scrutiny as the Elon opener approaches. Higher completion percentages and eliminating miscues will be a focus for this position. Five players will be fighting to take the snaps for the ‘Dores this season: two-year starter Larry Smith, junior Jordan Rodgers, and freshman signees Josh Grady, Kris Kentera and Lafonte Thourogood.
Franklin noted that Smith “has all the tools you look for in a quarterback. He’s physical and has an NFL arm. He also picks up concepts quickly and understands coverages.” Smith showed across-the-board improvement during spring drills, throwing with more accuracy and confidence during the Black and Gold Spring Game. Rodgers, younger brother of 2011 Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers, struggled with injuries during his first year on campus, but is expected to be healthy for camp in August.
The coaching staff will also closely monitor the preseason progress of the three quarterbacks signed in February.
RUNNING BACKS The ground game will feature improved depth as a trio of returning juniors and a redshirt sophomore bring experience to the backfield.
Warren Norman and Zac Stacy are on pace to enter the team’s all-time Top 10 for rushing yards. In 2010, Norman and Stacy rushed for 459 and 331 yards, respectively. Both averaged over five yards per carry last year and bring speed, power, and big-play potential to the rushing attack. Wesley Tate impressed the new coaching staff during spring drills and brings greater size and power to the run game. Junior Micah Powell transitioned from linebacker and made great improvement during spring practice.
The Commodores also welcome 2011 signees Mitchell Hester and Jerron Seymour, as well as two leading fullback prospects: sophomore Fitz Lassing and junior Marc Panu.
WIDE RECEIVERS Despite a campaign in 2010 plagued by youth and inexperience, the receiving corps will enter camp with improved confidence and experience.
Redshirt junior John Cole had a team-high 36 receptions in 2009, but finished 2010 with only 25 catches. Redshirt senior Udom Umoh also had fewer receptions in 2010 than in 2009. Both finished spring drills poised for a rebound in 2011. Sophomores Jonathan Krause and Jordan Matthews ended 2010 as the teams’ top receiving threats and capped spring ball with big catches in the Black and Gold Game. Several others will push for playing time during camp, including junior Jameson Sackey, redshirt junior Akeem Dunham, redshirt sophomore Brady Brown, redshirt freshman Chris Boyd, redshirt freshman Trent Pruitt and freshman signee Jacquese Kirk.
TIGHT ENDS Senior veteran Brandon Barden leads all SEC tight ends with 91 career receptions, earned all-conference honors in 2010 and should easily surpass the 1,000-yard mark for career receiving yards this season.
The Commodores will support Barden by improving depth at the position with the return of junior Austin Monahan and sophomore Mason Johnston. Both Monahan and Johnston missed time in 2010 due to injuries. Freshman signees Steven Scheu and Dillon van der Wal will also have an opportunity to impact the position. Versatile sophomore Fitz Lassing will help out at tight end and fullback.
OFFENSIVE LINE In 2010, the Commodores replaced all five starters on the offensive line. This year, all five players will return looking to develop into a cohesive protective unit.
The line is anchored by a pair of talented tackles in redshirt junior Ryan Seymour and redshirt sophomore Wesley Johnson. Both come with experience and determination. The duo played virtually every snap last year and have committed to a rigorous strength and conditioning program. Seymour added speed by dropping 15 pounds, while Johnson gained strength and bulk. Redshirt freshmen Andrew Bridges and Chase White will provide depth at the tackle position.
At guard, redshirt senior Kyle Fischer and redshirt junior Jabo Burrow return and are expected to be on the field for the Commodores’ first snap against Elon. Fischer has developed as a leader of the offensive line. Redshirt junior Caleb Welchans, sophomore Mylon Brown, and redshirt freshman Grant Ramsey are expected to compete at the guard position.
Sophomore Logan Stewart was a six-game starter at center in 2010. He enters preseason camp as the only snapper with in-game experience. Johnson, Seymour, Fischer, Welchans and Stewart have the versatility to play multiple line positions.
The Commodores will be aided by five newly signed line prospects: Jake Bernstein, James Lewis, Spencer Pulley, Joe Townsend, and Jose Valedon.