By Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch on Twitter)
The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.
Vanderbilt Commodores 2012 Spring Preview
2011 Record: 6-7, 2-6 SEC
Spring Practice: March 16-April 14
Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 7
Passing: Jordan Rodgers, 108 of 216, 1,524 yds, 9 TDs, 10 INTs
Rushing: Zac Stacy, 201 car., 1,193 yds., 14 TDs
Receiving: Jordan Matthews, 41 rec., 778 yds, 5 TDs
Tackles: Archibald Barnes, 59
Sacks: Rob Lohr, 5
Interceptions: Trey Wilson, 3
Redshirts to Watch: CB Derek King, OT James Lewis, WR Josh Grady, WR Jacquese Kirk, TE Darien Bryant
Early Enrollees: LB Daerreon Herring, QB Patton Robinette
Aug. 30 South Carolina
Sept. 8 at Northwestern
Sept. 15 Presbyterian
Sept. 22 at Georgia
Oct. 6 at Missouri
Oct. 13 Florida
Oct. 20 Auburn
Oct. 27 UMass
Nov. 3 at Kentucky
Nov. 10 at Ole Miss
Nov. 17 Tennessee
Nov. 24 at Wake Forest
Offensive Strength: The Commodores made dramatic improvement on offense as the 2011 season progressed due in large part to the emergence of Zac Stacy as an elite SEC tailback. Running behind a vastly improved offensive line, Stacy rushed for a single-season school record 1,193 yards on a healthy 5.9-yard average. The passing attack was also quite a bit more potent in the latter half of the ’11 season, but the Commodores’ offense this fall will rely heavily on its rushing attack.
Offensive Weakness: The offensive line was arguably the most improved unit on the team last season, but this is still a group that has trouble with big, physical defensive lines. Herb Hand feels pretty good about his starters — most notably Wesley Johnson — but the veteran O-Line coach will be looking to develop some depth this spring and into preseason camp. Vanderbilt would prefer to play Johnson at left tackle, but might have to move him back to center if no one emerges as that position.
Defensive Strength: Despite losing two starters to the NFL in cornerback Casey Heyward and safety Sean Richardson, the secondary remains the strength of the Vanderbilt defense. Andre Hal, the nickel back for much of the 2011 season, likely will step in and join Trey Wilson as a starting cornerback. Eric Samuels, Javon Marshall and Kenny Ladler will battle for starts at safety.
Defensive Weakness: Vanderbilt is dangerously thin at linebacker. The Commodores were forced to play more nickel coverages than they might have preferred last year to mask their deficiencies at linebacker. That will likely be the case once again unless some young, untested players emerge over the next six months.
Spring Storylines Facing the Commodores:
1. Who will be the quarterback? Jordan Rodgers, the starter for the final seven games last season, had some great moments directing the Vanderbilt offense in 2011. But don’t assume that Rodgers will be the starter on opening day. Austyn Carta-Samuels, a transfer from Wyoming who was the 2009 Mountain West Freshman of the Year, impressed the coaching staff while running the scout team last fall. He is an outstanding athlete who will be given an opportunity to win the job.
2. The return of tailback Warren Norman. One of the few playmakers on the Vanderbilt offense in 2009 and ’10, Norman missed all of last season with a knee injury. He is expected back this fall, but he has clearly been passed on the depth chart by Zac Stacy, a second-team All-SEC pick in 2011. Norman will no doubt be involved in the offense — if healthy — but his greatest contributions might be on special teams. He returned three kick-offs for touchdowns as a freshman in 2009 and has averaged 25.9 yards on 62 career returns.
3. The linebacker position. Finding some capable bodies to man the three linebacker positions will be a primary focus this spring. There are basically only two healthy linebackers with significant experience going through spring practice — Chase Garnham and Archibald Barnes. Tristan Strong, who tore his ACL early last season, is expected back in the fall. After that? Who knows. Don’t be surprised if some true freshmen like Darreon Herring (early enrollee), Jake Sealand and Harding Harper get a long look.
4. The kicking game. There are no concerns with punter Richard Kent, but the Commodores simply must get more consistency from their placekickers. Carey Spear and Ryan Fowler each made 4-of-7 attempts last year, and neither made a kick over 40 yards. It’s not likely that either one will win the job during spring practice, but coach James Franklin would love to see both kick with more confidence. Colby Cooke, a true freshman, will join the competition in the fall.
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