Monday, August 27, 2012

Stanimal's 2012 Season Preview: Taking the Next Step

Where We Are

From the moment he was hired, James Franklin has been working to effect wholesale culture change in one of college football's most difficult jobs.  When measuring his impact against previous regimes (with all due respect to Bobby Johnson), what Franklin has done in his two years has been nothing short of astounding.  Since Rivals began ranking teams in terms of recruiting prowess, Vanderbilt was consistently in the 60-75 range nationally, with the occasional drop into the sub-80 department.  In Franklin's first off-season, which was shortened by his relatively late hire after a dalliance with Gus Malzahn, he managed to swing several significant recruits to close Vanderbilt out with a near top-50 class.  This would prove to be just the beginning.  After a (much) better than expected first season that saw the Commodores reach its second bowl game since 1982 and first since 2008, Franklin crushed the recruiting trail, landing a near top-25 recruiting class and by far Vanderbilt's most highly ranked crop since the boom in recruiting services.  Now, Vanderbilt is ranked between 16 and 19 in every recruiting service's rankings, and there is more hype in Nashville about the Commodores than, I dare say, anyone has ever seen.  This is a prime example of what CJF has preached since day one, and he has accomplished it through extremely creative means (more on that in another post.)  In summary, this is a program that is not just on the rise, but is soaring.  With an excellent season, the Commodores could be positioned to permanently dump the dreaded "SOV" tag.

However, what should not be overlooked in the big picture is the  potential that this particular team has.  Vanderbilt has 18 returning starters, 9 on the offensive side of the ball and 7 on the defensive. There have been various reasons presented for and against the possibility that Vanderbilt will reach back-to-back bowls for the first time in school history.  Below is my summary of what this team will look like going into the 2012 season.

The Roster

Quarterbacks:  Since Jay Cutler's graduation, the quarterback position has been a revolving door for the Commodores.  Some have had their moments in the sun, but consistency has been a problem.  As a result, Vanderbilt has been one of the worst passing teams in the nation over the past 5 years.  Last years remarkable season was primarily the result of a substantially improved passing game, much of which occurred upon the promotion of Jordan Rodgers to every day starter for the second half of the season.  This year, Rodgers returns and by all accounts looks very sharp, displaying improved accuracy in both spring practice and in Vanderbilt team camps.  Vanderbilt also has a nicely filled cupboard with junior transfer Austyn Carta-Samuels and and touted freshman Patton Robinette.  Still, Vanderbilt will go as far as Rodgers will take them, and by all accounts that could be very very far.  The arrow is pointing up on this position group.

Running Backs:  It is truly incredible how little press senior running back Zac Stacy has received this off-season.  The SEC's leading returning rusher has taken a back seat to the return of Heisman hopeful Marcus Lattimore at South Carolina and impressive Arkansas running back Knile Davis.  However, Zac Stacy is the lead dog in what has to be one of the deepest backfields in the SEC.  Behind Stacy are three potent weapons in sophomore Jerron Seymour, freshman stud Brian Kimbrow, and former SEC Freshman of the Year Warren Norman.  While Stacy will be the workhorse, all three should get significant snaps and will likely line up at multiple positions to take advantage of their speed.  Vanderbilt will use Fitz Lassing and Kris Kentera as the plows to keep the holes open.  If the offensive line gels appropriately, not only could Vandy have its best running game in the past decade, it could have one of the most potent attacks in the SEC.  This group should be something special for years to come.

Wide Receiver/Tight Ends:  "The Flyboys" as they are affectionately called are largely responsible for the emergence of Jordan Rodgers and an improved passing game.  That's because Vanderbilt boasts one of the best wide receiver tandems in the SEC.  Sophomore Chris Boyd and junior Jordan Matthews are larger wide receivers which present difficult match-up problems for SEC defenses.  Both combined for nearly 1300 yards receiving and 13 touchdowns.  With another off-season and a more experienced Rodgers, this tandem should do even better.  The two are complimented by slot receivers Jonathan Krause and Wesley Tate, who provide experience and speed to form a deep receiving corps.  Additionally, senior Austin Monahan and redshirt freshman TE/H-Back Kris Kentera will be relied on to add another wrinkle to Vanderbilt's pro-style offense.  This group gives Vanderbilt one of its deepest offenses at the skill positions in years.  But all that is for naught if the offensive line doesn't produce, which makes them the most critical unit on the offense.

Offensive Line:  Vanderbilt has a serious dearth of offensive line depth, which is a major reason why James Franklin hit this position group so hard on the recruiting trail.  Vanderbilt has 6 freshman offensive line signees.  That being said, there is experience on this unit that will be crucial to keeping Rodgers upright and opening holes for the running game.  Four players with starting experience return for this unit.  Senior guards Josh Jelesky and Ryan Seymour bookend sophomore center Spencer Pulley.  On the outside, Vanderbilt will look to junior tackle Wesley Johnson to protect Rodgers' blind side, and sophomore Andrew Bridges (of my high school alma mater) shores up the right tackle spot.  Beyond the first team, however, Vanderbilt starts getting very young.  This unit has no upperclassmen backups. Huge recruiting coup Andrew Jelks is the top backup to Wesley Johnson at left tackle, with freshman Adam Butler backing up the right guard spot.  If this unit can maintain health and consistency, Vanderbilt's offense can soar.  However, injuries are part of the game, and this unit's depth is certainly a cause for concern for Commodore fans.

Defensive Line:  The Commodores have always struggled at defensive line because a lack of depth across the board.  This year, I believe this unit will be Vanderbilt's strongest on defense.  The loss of Tim Fugger, who was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts, will require replacement, but there is a significant amount talent at every position.  The group will be anchored by senior defensive tackle Rob Lohr, who was second on the team last year with 5 sacks.  He also had an impressive 11.5 tackles for loss.  Surrounding him are a combination of talented rotation players Johnell Thomas, Colt Nichter, and Walker May, all of whom contributed last season.  The guy who has me most jacked up is true freshman Caleb Azubike.  A local  product, Azubike is an absolute beast and was one of Vanderbilt's highest rated recruits.  He is one of three freshmen (along with Brian Kimbrow and linebacker Darreon Herring) who James Franklin has said needs to be ready to step in immediately, and for good reason.  Azubike has size and is very explosive at his position, and should create a lot of havoc in offensive backfields almost immediately.  Signings such as Azubike definitely have this unit on its way up.

Linebacker:  Linebacker is the other area, behind offensive line, that will lack the depth of some of the other position groups.  Starters Archibald Barnes and Chase Garnham received significant playing time last year and responded favorably, but junior Karl Butler is relatively raw for the position and is undersized, having once been a high level cornerback recruit.  After those three, there is zero experience amongst the second team, though talent cannot be denied.  Redshirt freshman Larry Franklin was a big pickup for Coach Franklin in his first year on the recruiting trail, which he followed up by another huge addition in freshman linebacker Darreon Herring.  Herring is a highly athletic playmaking outside linebacker who has been making waves at camp.  He was the only freshman to enroll with Vandy in time for spring practice and has since been making play after play.  The coaching staff expects big things out of Herring in the future, and for good reason.  That being said, there are likely to be some bumps in the road at this spot due to the lack of experience.

Defensive Back:  Vanderbilt has produced an NFL draft pick out of this unit in three out of the past four drafts (D.J. Moore, 2009, Myron Lewis, 2010, Casey Hayward, 2012).  Performance out of the defensive secondary has always been a positive out of the Commodore program.  While this unit may take a small step back from the loss of Hayward and Sean Richardson, I believe that any reports of it regressing further are simply unfounded.  Three players with starting experience return in the Commodores defensive backfield (Wilson, 13 games, Ladler, 5 games, and Marshall, 8 games) and each of those players saw significant action in all 13 games.  In addition, Andre Hal served as the team's nickelback and kick returner last year, while also starting as a true freshman under then-head coach Robbie Caldwell.  Vanderbilt has done a remarkable job of staggering its defensive back talent so as to never lose continuity, and I don't expect this year to be any different, with an exceptional year for Trey Wilson ahead.

Special Teams:  Let's be honest, Vanderbilt fans have lacked the comfort of an efficient kicker for years.  The thought after the 2009 season was that Ryan Fowler would cure that issue, as he kicked a solid 16-21 and went 4-6 from 40-49 yards out.  We haven't seen the same Ryan Fowler since, and last year his starting post was supplanted by Carey Spear.  Despite this, the two had equivalent production last year, attempting only 7 field goals a piece and making 4.  This year, Fowler won his kicking duties back and is hoping to return to his reliable form from his first year.  Punter Richard Kent proved to be exceptionally efficient last year, with a highly respectable 42.5 yard punting average with 23 punts that landed inside the 20 yard line.   Andre Hal returns to his kickoff duties where he flashed moments of brilliance, including a 96-yard TD return against Georgia.  Jonathan Krause retains the punt return duties.  A big reason why the Commodores exceeded expectations last year was performance on special teams, where Vanderbilt was 23rd in the nation in kickoff return defense and in net punting.  With continued excellence in these areas and improved consistency in field goals, this unit could be one of Vandy's best in a long time.

Where We're Going

Many people overlook the 2010 Vanderbilt recruiting class, which represented Bobby Johnson's best.  With that class reaching starting roles and Franklin's dedication to building the program, special things are in the Commodores future.  Key to reaching those goals is to maintain continuous success on the recruiting trail, and the number one way to achieve that is to win games.  Coach Franklin has done an excellent job of putting the spotlight squarely on the program and making people see the excitement that surrounds it.  A bowl season, particularly one of stature outside the state of Tennessee, would likely cause this program to erupt.  We'll be talking schedule predictions later in the week, but there is little question that this team is capable of doing what no other Vandy team has done before and further solidifying the "foundation" that Franklin preaches.


buzneg said...

Can your repeat that middle part? I missed some of it.

Bobby O'Shea said...

As always, Stanimal, nice post.

The VSL Braintrust is trying to make things right with VSLNation, so be sure to check back all week for additional posts.