NASHVILLE - James Franklin likes his Commodores' energy and attitude as they await their first visit to refurbished Vanderbilt Stadium.
"I liked how we practiced and I see us getting better on both sides of the ball," Franklin said Friday after a 2-hour workout at the John Rich Practice Facility. "Our energy, competitiveness and attitude, just the way we practiced out there, I was very, very pleased."
The second-year head coach isn't saying much publicly regarding the team's first session in Vanderbilt Stadium, which will come Saturday night. Privately, when they walk across Jess Neely Drive into the renovated venue, it likely will be a bit emotional for both Franklin and his players.
From the players' prospective, this Vanderbilt Stadium will have a different feel from the former facility. The Dudley Field surface is totally different, changing from Bermuda grass to synthetic turf. The playing conditions will be much brighter, thanks to a completely updated lighting system. The open north end has changed drastically, going from two hospitality tents and a small jumbotron to a hillside construction and expansive video board.
More than anything, Franklin wants his squad to appreciate the upgrades, but not get complacent. He will not permit any change in the team's mentality.
"That's very important to me. I don't want these players to become entitled and soft," Franklin said. "They're in a great situation at Vanderbilt and we all are very, very appreciative of what we have, but we're not going to lose that mentality of being a blue collar, lunch-pail style team.
The stadium appearance is expected to come on the team's first two-a-day practice of the preseason. The Commodores also are likely to stage another two-a-day session on Monday after an off day Sunday.
Hal Making Plays at Cornerback
The Commodores lost one of the top cornerbacks in the nation last year when All-America recipient Casey Hayward departed for a likely NFL career with the Green Bay Packers. Though Hayward has moved on, his apparent replacement, junior Andre Hal, is drawing raves during the early practices.
On Friday, Hal added to his list of preseason highlights. During a 7-on-7 drill, Hal showed tremendous athleticism by diving to snare a tipped pass for an interception.
Matthews Enjoys Excellent Practice
Junior wide receiver Jordan Matthews had perhaps his best practice to date on Friday. He was one the receiving end of several completions, including a hookup with senior quarterback Jordan Rodgers that went the distance for a touchdown. Later, he went high to grab a one-handed catch off a Austyn Carta-Samuels' pass, coming down just inbounds.
Defensive Front Catches Franklin's Attention
The head coach praised a talented corps of defensive line prospects after practice Friday.
"Walker (May) and Johnell (Thomas) have been playing really well, and I'm also happy with the young ends, guys like (Jimmy) Stewart, (Darien) Bryant, (Caleb) Azubike and (Kyle) Woestmann. We have a chance to have a really big rush on the perimeter," Franklin said.
Freshman DE Azubike Making Big Impression
If any of Vanderbilt's heralded freshman class sees the field this season, it appears Nashville product Caleb Azubike could be one of them. The McGavock High graduate continues to impress, seemingly making a handful of individual plays each practice.
In a humorous tone, Franklin offered high praise for the 6-4, 255-lb. prospect. "Sometimes they look like Tarzan and play like Jane. Caleb looks like Tarzan and plays like Tarzan," the coach added.