By: chalifour.eric | 5/19/12, 11:05 AM EDT
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You can read the entire Vanderbilt Commodores preview in Athlon Sports' 2012 SEC magazine, available for purchase now at the Athlon Sports store.
SEC East PREDICTION
HEAD COACH: James Franklin, 6-7 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: John Donovan | DEF. COORDINATOR: Brent Pry, Bob Shoop
Jordan Rodgers replaced Larry Smith as the primary quarterback in the first half of a loss to Georgia. The Vanderbilt offense was never the same — in a good way. With Rodgers running the show, the Commodores averaged 31.6 points and 413.0 yards in the final seven regular-season games after averaging 20.4 and 244.4 through the first five. Rodgers will enter preseason camp as the No. 1 quarterback, but will pushed by Austyn Carta-Samuels, a transfer from Wyoming who was the Mountain West Freshman of the Year in 2009.
Zac Stacy emerged as one of the top running backs in the SEC last season, rushing for single-season school-record 1,193 yards on a healthy 5.9-yard average. Stacy lacks elite speed, but he has good footwork and runs with power. Incoming freshman Brian Kimbrow, listed at 5'8", 170 pounds, lacks the size to be an every-down back, but he is a dynamic athlete who will get plenty of touches.
At receiver, a significant area of weakness became a relative strength last fall, thanks in large part to the emergence of Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd as reliable targets in the passing game.
Perhaps the biggest key in Vanderbilt’s offensive renaissance in the latter half of the 2011 season was the improved play of the offensive line. The leader of the group is Wesley Johnson, who proved to be invaluable as a sophomore, starting seven games at center, five at left tackle and one at left guard.
You won’t confuse Vanderbilt’s defensive line with its counterparts at LSU, Alabama or Georgia, but the Commodores feature both quality and quantity on their defensive front. The coaching staff expects a big junior season from Walker May, a playmaking end who uses his speed and quickness to attack the quarterback
For the first time since the 2007 season, Chris Marve will not be patrolling the middle of the Vanderbilt defense. His loss will be felt both on and off the field. Chase Garnham, a revelation at outside linebacker last season, will slide over to take Marve’s spot in the middle. Depth is a major concern at linebacker.
The secondary must replace a pair of three-year starters who are now in the NFL — cornerback Casey Hayward and safety Sean Richardson. Corner should still be a position of strength, with senior Trey Wilson joined by junior Andre Hal, who saw extensive action last year.
Franklin is desperately seeking more consistency from kickers Carey Spear and Ryan Fowler, who combined to hit only 8-of-14 field goals, none longer than 37 yards. Richard Kent was solid in his second season as the punter, averaging 42.5 yards on his 64 kicks.
There was nothing fluky about Vanderbilt’s improvement from two wins in 2010 to six wins in the first year of the James Franklin era. The Commodores ranked seventh in the SEC in total offense and sixth in total defense, and four of their six league losses came by six points or less. There was no smoke. There were no mirrors.
But the big question: Can they do it again? Can the Commodores maintain this momentum and go to a bowl for the second straight season (for the first time in school history)? The talent is there, especially on offense, where the Commodores feature a veteran quarterback, an All-SEC running back and nice collection of wide receivers. The big key will be on defense, where some key players — and outstanding leaders — must be replaced.