Enthusiasm and energy, while helpful, do not win football games.
By: Athlon Sports | 6/6/11, 1:27 PM EDT
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SEC East PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: James Franklin, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: John Donovan | DEF. COORDINATOR: Brent Pry, Bob Shoop
Larry Smith teased Commodore fans with a strong showing in the Music City Bowl in 2008, but the Alabama native has struggled in his two seasons as the starter. Last fall, Smith completed only 47.4 percent of his passes and averaged a woeful 5.1 yards per attempt overall and 3.8 in SEC games. To be fair, Smith has been forced to operate behind the league’s worst offensive line the past two seasons, but he will have to perform at a higher level to hold on to the starting assignment. The biggest challenge will come from Jordan Rodgers, a former junior college transfer — who was limited in the spring while recovering from shoulder surgery.
The strength of the Vanderbilt offense is undoubtedly in the backfield, where Warren Norman, Zac Stacy and Wesley Tate will battle for carries. Norman, who rushed for 459 yards and averaged 6.0 yards per carry before going down with a season-ending arm injury in Week 8, gives Vanderbilt a much-needed big-play threat. Tate caught the attention of the coaching staff with a strong performance in the spring.
Vanderbilt’s receiving corps has been alarmingly unproductive in recent seasons. Veterans John Cole and Udom Umoh are back, but the Commodores need some of their younger receivers to take on leading roles. Brandon Barden and Austin Monahan (if healthy) form a nice tandem at tight end.
No area of the team will be under the microscope more than the offensive line. Simply put, this unit needs to show significant improvement if Vanderbilt plans on being competitive in the SEC this fall. All five starters return.
The defensive line had emerged as a relative strength in recent seasons but struggled last fall, due in large part to a rash of injuries at the tackle spots. Three of the four starters are back, highlighted by blue-collar tackle T.J. Greenstone, a fifth-year senior and a two-year team captain.
Even in the leanest of times, Vanderbilt has never had a shortage of SEC-quality linebackers. That, however, was not the case last season. Chris Marve was outstanding in the middle (as usual), but the Commodores didn’t get much out of the other two spots. “This is an area of concern for us,” says first-year coach James Franklin.
There’s talent and depth in the Vanderbilt secondary. Senior Casey Hayward, a second-team All-SEC pick last season, headlines a solid crop of cornerbacks. Senior Sean Richardson and sophomore Kenny Ladler are back at safety. The 6'2", 218-pound Richardson is outstanding in run support.
Placekicker Ryan Fowler was solid as a freshman in 2009 (16-of-21) but regressed as sophomore (8-of-13 overall, 0-of-4 beyond 35). He will be pushed by sophomore Carey Spear, who kicked off last season. Punter Richard Kent was called on all too frequently, ranking second in the nation with 84 attempts. Norman has been a weapon as a kick returner during his two years at Vanderbilt.
Franklin has injected some much-needed enthusiasm into the Vanderbilt program. But enthusiasm and energy, while helpful, do not win football games. The Commodores need more talent. “We are here for a reason,” Franklin said during the spring. “There is no doubt we have work to do. We have to recruit. We have to go out and provide for the future of our program.”
In the present, the Commodores figure to have trouble escaping last place in the SEC East. They should be better, but better might not be good enough.