Vanderbilt's first game was played Nov. 27, 1890. Since that time, 2,081 different players have earned letters for the Commodores. But after Saturday's AutoZone Liberty Bowl, just nine of those letterwinners can say they have played in multiple bowl games. Those nine comprise Vanderbilt's 2011 senior class.
The class has experienced ups and downs like no other class in school history. In the last three seasons, they have played for three different coaches. Between their two bowl appearances are two very forgettable seasons of back-to-back 2-10 finishes. The roller coaster ride will officially come to a close on Saturday as the class plays in its final game for the Commodores.
The names of these seniors will live in memory for many years to come with each member playing a significant role in shaping Vanderbilt's program.
They are: Brandon Barden, TE - Will leave Vanderbilt as one of the school's most productive pass-catching tight ends in school history. He was a defensive mismatch because of his size, speed and hands. His game-winning catch against Auburn in 2008 will be remembered for years and his catch and run against Wake Forest this season may be one of the better plays anyone will ever see at any level of football.
Kyle Fischer - OL - Maybe a strong indication of just how good Fischer has been is how much he has flown under the radar throughout his career. Normally a sentence like that would not be high praise, but for an offensive lineman, it is. While Vanderbilt's offensive line has been a revolving door the last few years, the only constant has been Fischer. A four-year starter, Fischer has played every position on the line besides center and has probably worked beside every lineman who has been part of the program the last four year, but throughout all the change, the one consistent has been Fischer, who will leave as one of the school's better and most versatile offensive linemen.
Tim Fugger - DE - When a Vanderbilt player forces a fumble in the future, it will be hard not to remember Fugger. The speedster off the edge forced eight fumbles in his career and was a quarterback menace throughout his career. His performance really took off this season when he registered 7.0 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss. He wasn't blessed with a lot of size, but he made up for it with his quickness that often forced double teams.
T.J. Greenstone - DT - A space-eating defensive tackle with one of the team's largest personalities, Greenstone anchored Vanderbilt's interior line for the majority of his carer. A fan favorite, Greenstone helped solidify Vanderbilt's defensive line the last four season. One of the strongest players on the team, Greenstone was outstanding at stopping the run and also a threat to get to the quarterback. Unfortunately, he was slowed by injuries during the final two years of his career.
Casey Hayward - DB - The latest on a long list of shutdown cornerbacks to don the Black and Gold, Hayward could virtually shift an entire passing game to one side of the field because of his coverage skills. He was thrust into action in the 2008 Music City Bowl after D.J. Moore's injury and he has since assumed Moore's role as the team's top defensive back. His interception return for a touchdown against UConn helped shape the 2011 season.
Chris Marve - LB - Unquestioned leader of the defense, Marve has anchored Vanderbilt's middle linebacker position for four seasons. A tackling machine, Marve will leave Vanderbilt as the eighth all-time leading tackler. His goal line stops at Ole Miss in 2008 will be remembered for many seasons to come and helped to catapult his career into one of the best in school history. Despite playing a highly physical position, Marve was a staple in the lineup. His 48 career starts are nine more than any other player on the team.
Larry Smith - QB - The entire senior class has been on a roller coaster ride, but no member has had more peaks and valleys on their ride than Smith. After earning the starting job at the end of the 2008 season, Smith led Vanderbilt to a bowl victory. He would remain the starter until midway through the 2011 season. Despite moving into a backup role, Smith remained an important and respected leader, and he will leave Vanderbilt as one of the most productive quarterbacks, ranking in the top 10 in total offense, passing yardage, completions and attempts.
Sean Richardson - S - Richardson's burst onto the scene at the Music City Bowl when he scored the team's only touchdown on a botched punt return. Since then, Richardson has anchored Vanderbilt's defensive secondary as a three-year starter. A physical safety, Richardson was one of the team's most consistent players and possessed outstanding size and athleticism.
Udom Umoh - WR - Like Smith, Umoh lost his starting job this season, but has remained an integral part of the team. A speedy wide receiver, Umoh had the ability to stretch the other team's defense. In his career, he has four catches of 40-plus yards. Despite not seeing as much time at wide receiver in 2011, Umoh has been a key contributor on special teams. He tackled Kentucky's punter for a 21-yard loss earlier this year and it will be hard to forget his blocked punt in the closing minutes against Georgia, which was nearly returned for a touchdown.
As you can see, this was no ordinary class. The lasting impact and memories each player will leave with Vanderbilt's program are part of what makes this class so unique. The class will accomplish history by playing in two bowl games, but the fact that each player in the class has been such a key contributor throughout their careers is also somewhat of a rarity in football. Almost like clockwork, most every class has a player or two that graduates after making little impact on the field. That can't be said about this group of seniors.
"I'm very, very appreciative of the seniors and how hard they've worked," Head Coach James Franklin said. "Since I arrived on campus, the seniors have been tremendous. They bought into our message and have been great leaders for the rest of the team. They are a great group of guys."
Because of the impact this class has made and the experiences they have shared, there is a lasting bond that makes this year's bowl experience that much more rewarding.
"Just what we experienced the last two years was dismal for us just as a whole team," senior wideout Udom Umoh said. "The bowl game allows us to have one more game, one more practice and one more opportunity for us to be together as a team. I think that is what really makes it special is that this team will never be the same again. The biggest thing we are saying is that this is just another chance for us to be together as a family.
"We consider ourselves family, we are all brothers and we will be friends for life. These are people we can always lean on later in life."
Four or five years from now, Vanderbilt fans may be able to look back at this senior class and consider it the foundation for the success experienced by the program over the course of years to come. That belief is something that is not lost on members of the class.
"It is a good feeling to be able to play in two bowl games and it is nice because it is something that hasn't been done before," senior defensive tackle T.J. Greenstone said. "More importantly, it is us laying the ground work and pretty soon it will be next year's class that will be to multiple bowl games and it is just nice to know we set the foundation."
After this group of seniors moves on, links to the 2008 team will remain on the roster, but they will only be in the form of players that redshirted or did not see action in the Music City Bowl. For guys, who were seniors on that 2008 team, this senior class is one of its last connections to that memorable season, and they couldn't be happier for the way the 2011 seniors are going out.
"Those guys have all put in the effort for it and they deserve it," said former kicker Bryant Hahnfeldt, who kicked the game-winning 45-yard field goal to beat Boston College in 2008. "They are the first guys ever to go to two bowl games and they are not taking it for granted either. They've put in the time and they deserve it. They've overcome a lot with having three coaches. That's not easy at all. For them to be able to do that is huge and I couldn't be happier for them."
The support shown by those former players from the 2008 team have also been felt all season by this year's senior class.
"Those guys have been in the stands screaming and yelling for us all year long and I can't wait to be with them," said Greenstone, who has his sights set on becoming a graduate assistant strength coach next year. "It is just one of those things where they are proud for us and if it wasn't for them, we wouldn't be in the position to win two bowl games because of how hard they worked."
Vanderbilt's senior class will enjoy the final hours before the game and savor every bit of it come Saturday because the reality is, once the final horn sounds, they will be just like their former teammates, taking in games from the stands and not from the sidelines. It's been a long road of ups and downs, but it is a road they'd rather not see come to an end. And the thought of lacing up the shoes one last time and putting the Vanderbilt jersey on over their shoulder pads just once more, makes it that much harder to think about.
"It is bittersweet," Umoh said. "As an individual, you are always excited to move on and look to the future, but definitely in the back of your mind, this is your last game, each snap is one less snap you will have in your career. I know all the seniors are definitely going to play their hardest because you never know when your next play will be your last."
That final horn will sound around the 6 o'clock hour on Saturday evening, and no matter if the team wins or loses, the accomplishments of the class can not be taken away. The group will have left an indelible mark on Vanderbilt's program no matter the result, but it wouldn't be the storybook ending to the book they have written if the class didn't exit the field with a bowl trophy raised high in the air.
"We have to finish it out as a class and as a team with a bowl victory," Umoh said. "We have a potential to win two bowl games, but this is also an opportunity to take momentum leading into next year so this freshman class can be at the start of four or five bowl games in a row. We are telling them what we can accomplish as seniors, but what we also can and will accomplish as a team."