The Vanderbilt Commodores return 16 starters and 44letterwinners for the 2012 season. The returnees include nine starters and 20 letterwinners on offense, seven starters and 20letterwinners on defense, and the team's top three specialists.
Vanderbilt looks to improve off a 2011 campaign that featured first-year Head Coach James Franklin guiding the Commodores to their fifth postseason bowl appearance in team history. The Commodores showed across-the-board progress last year, with both offensive and defensive units ranking as the most improved in the Southeastern Conference. For the first time in 28 years, the Commodores produced more points and total offense than their opponents.
For the second time in six years, Vanderbilt kicks off ESPN's coverage of FBS college football. On Thursday, Aug. 30, the on-campus meeting between Vanderbilt and South Carolina serves as ESPN's first broadcast on a busy Labor Day Weekend.
The schedule has Vanderbilt making early-season road trips to Northwestern, Georgia and Missouri before returning to Nashville for home games against Florida on Oct. 13, Auburn on Oct. 20 and Massachusetts on Oct. 27. In November, road games against Kentucky, Ole Miss and Wake Forest are sandwiched around the Commodores' home finale against Tennessee on Nov. 17.
Blessed with one of the Southeastern Conference's top running backs and a returning starter at quarterback, the Commodore backfield appears to be a team strength as the 2012 season nears.
While senior tailback Zac Stacy and senior quarterback Jordan Rodgers are expected to headline the Commodore offense,several others possess the skill to produce breakout seasons.
The coaches expect Rodgers to build off an impressive late-season performance. Inserted midway through the season, Rodgers ranked among the SEC regular season leaders in passing yards and total offense. Utilizing dual-threat abilities, the younger brother of Green Bay Packers' standout Aaron Rodgers helped the offense average 31.6 points and 413 yards as a starter. Rodgers also created superb chemistry with young receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd.
Rodgers will face stiff competition at quarterback. Waiting in the wings is junior Austyn Carta-Samuels, who like Rodgers, transferred to Vanderbilt from the West. Carta-Samuels' credentials as a two-year starter at Wyoming of the Mountain West Conference rival those of Rodgers. He threw for 3,655 yards and 19 touchdowns at Wyoming, and guided the Cowboys to a bowl victory in 2009.
One of the top aims for Vanderbilt's quarterback will be to get the ball in Stacy's hands. Stacy earned All-SEC honors after setting team records with 1,193 rushing yards and 14 rushing touchdowns. Stacy also proved that he can handle the load of a No. 1 running back in the SEC, averaging 121 yards over the final seven games.
One of the most pleasant developments from Spring Practice was the return of Stacy's former running mate, junior Warren Norman. The coaches hope the Norman that rushed for 1,242 yards in 2009-10 returns this fall.
Powerfully built sophomore Jerron Seymour was a potent No. 2 back to Stacy in 2011. Versatile athlete Wesley Tate also impressed the staff during spring drills, bringing greater size and power to the run game. Tate also has been productive as a receiving threat.
Brian Kimbrow is a highly regarded freshman who possesses tremendous quickness and explosive moves.
The Commodores return one of the Southeastern Conference's top wide receiver tandems and a crop of newcomers hoping to bring big-play abilities to the Vanderbilt offense.
First-year coach Josh Gattis returns virtually the entire wide receiving corps intact from the AutoZone Liberty Bowl squad. Tight ends mentor Charles Bankins also has multiple letterwinners back, though he must replace graduated starter Brandon Barden.
Matthews and Boyd became one of the SEC's most potent duos during 2011, combining for 13 touchdown catches.
Matthews comes off the best season by a Vanderbilt receiver since Earl Bennett smashed numerous team records in 2007. He also finished the season off in style, averaging 110 receiving yards during the final six games. Boyd posted eight touchdown catches, the most by a Commodore since 2005.
Krause and Tate each topped 20 receptions last year. John Cole, the team's active career leader in catches, and Trent Pruitt also return.
Redshirt freshmen Josh Grady and Jacquese Kirk were standouts during spring drills and could easily play their way into substantial roles this fall.
One of the team's most impressive performers during Spring Practice was redshirt freshman Kris Kentera, who made numerous plays after moving from quarterback to H-back. Kentera and junior Fitz Lassing are the team's top H-backs.
For the second straight year, the Commodores return an offensive line largely intact from the previous season. The returnees also include some of the top offensive linemen in recent team history.
In 2011, the line helped Vanderbilt produce the Southeastern Conference's most improved offense. The Commodores scored 38 touchdowns in 2011, the most since 1948. The team's 24 rushing touchdowns nearly matched the combined total from the 2009-10 seasons. The squad averaged nearly 50 yards more per game, allowing Vanderbilt to enjoy big increases in total first downs and time of possession. Individually, the line opened gaps for Zac Stacy, who set new Vanderbilt single-season records with 1,193rushing yards and 14 touchdowns.
The line will be anchored by a pair of veterans in Ryan Seymour and Wesley Johnson. Both are experienced, versatile and All-SEC caliber performers. Seymour gives the Commodores a physical presence at left guard and has the abilities to play either tackle role. Johnson was one of the SEC's top linemen in 2011, playing effectively while starting at all three line positions.
Josh Jelesky and Andrew Bridges gave the Commodores a big lift last year as first-year starters at right guard and right tackle, respectively.
Two improving sophomores, Spencer Pulley and Joe Townsend, pushed each other in Spring Ball at center and appear destined to compete for that starting role in preseason camp.