James Franklin has taken Vanderbilt where few thought it was possible for the program to go — to the middle of the pack in the SEC. After showing significant improvement in Franklin’s first season — the Dores won six games in 2011, two more than the previous two years combined — the program took an even bigger step forward in 2012. The Commodores went 9–4 overall and 5–3 in the SEC. The nine wins were the most since 1915, and the winning record in the league was the school’s first since 1982. Vanderbilt ended the season on a seven-game winning streak, with five of the seven victories coming by 14 points or more. There was nothing fluky about Vanderbilt’s breakthrough season — the Commodores ranked fifth in the league in total defense and a respectable eighth in total offense. And while there are a few key personnel losses on both sides of the ball, there is more than enough returning talent to keep the Commodores relevant in the nation’s most difficult conference.
Vanderbilt Commodores 2013 Spring Preview
2012 Record: 9-4 (5-3)
Spring practice dates: March 15-April 13
Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 6
Passing: Austyn Carta-Samuels, 14 of 25, 208 yards, 1 TD, 0 INT
Rushing: Brian Kimbrow, 66 car., 413 yards, 3 TDs
Receiving: Jordan Matthews, 94 rec., 1,323 yards, 8 TDs
Tackles: Kenny Ladler, 90
Sacks: Kyle Woestmann, 6
Interceptions: Kenny Ladler and Andre Hal, 2
Redshirts to Watch: CB Brandon Banks, DT Ladarius Banks, P Colby Cooke, OL Barrett Gouger, OL Andrew Jelks, CB Torren McGaster, DE Stephen Weatherly, QB Patton Robinette
Early Enrollees to Watch: OL Sean Dowling, QB Johnny McCrary
JUCO Transfers to watch: TE Brandon Vandenburg
Aug. 29 Ole Miss
Sept. 7 Austin Peay
Sept. 14 at South Carolina
Sept. 21 at UMass
Sept. 28 UAB
Oct. 5 Missouri
Oct. 19 Georgia
Oct. 26 at Texas A&M
Nov. 2 Bye Week
Nov. 9 at Florida
Nov. 16 Kentucky
Nov. 23 at Tennessee
Nov. 30 Wake Forest
Offensive Strength: Vanderbilt boasts the SEC’s best pair of starting wide receivers in Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd. Matthews earned first-team all-conference honors as a junior after catching a league-best 94 passes for 1,323 yards and eight touchdowns. Boyd’s numbers weren’t as gaudy (50 catches for 774 yards), but he has tremendous hands and is considered a legitimate NFL prospect.
Offensive Weakness: Vanderbilt is unproven at the quarterback position after losing Jordan Rodgers to graduation. Austyn Carta-Samuels, who started for two seasons at Wyoming, is the favorite, though redshirt freshman Patton Robinette will get a long look.
Defensive Strength: The Commodores feature three defensive ends who could play for any team in the league — a statement that can’t often be made with conviction. Senior Walker May is a bit undersized (6-5, 250) but has been a consistent playmaker for the past two seasons. Junior Kyle Woestmann was perhaps the best player on the defense in the latter half of the season, with six sacks and 9.5 tackles for a loss in the final seven games. And sophomore Caleb Azubuike recorded 4.5 sacks as a true freshman.
Defensive Weakness: Vanderbilt lacks depth at defensive tackle, with only three players returning who logged meaningful snaps at the position in 2012. To build some depth, the staff moved highly touted offensive lineman Adam Butler, a redshirt freshman, to defensive tackle in the spring, and also is looking at moving Azubuike inside on passing downs.
Spring Storylines Facing the Commodores
1. Replacing Jordan Rodgers. After a slow start, Jordan Rodgers enjoyed an outstanding senior season running the Vanderbilt offense. The biggest issue in the offseason is identifying Rodgers’ successor. Austyn Carta-Samuels, a two year-starter at Wyoming and the 2009 Mountain West Freshman of the Year, is the favorite. Carta-Samuels is a dual-threat who threw for 3,655 yards and rushed for 578 in his two seasons at Wyoming. He started one game last year for Vanderbilt, throwing for 195 yards in an easy win over Presbyterian. Carta-Samuels will be challenged by Patton Robinette, a redshirt freshman from East Tennessee who was once committed to North Carolina. Josh Grady, who was moved from quarterback to wide receiver last spring, is back at quarterback (for now). True freshmen Johnny McCrary and Chad Kanoff are long shots to play right away.
2. Sorting out the running back situation. Zac Stacy finished his career as the school’s all-time leading rusher. The Commodores will replace his production with a three-man committee — senior Wesley Tate and sophomores Jerron Seymour and Brian Kimbrow. Tate emerged as a consistent No. 2 back last year after spending the 2011 season at wide receiver. He had 10 carries or more five times in the last eight games and scored one touchdown in six of the last seven games. He has decent size and good speed but did not have a run longer than 25 yards in 2012. Kimbrow, a highly touted recruit, was the Commodores’ second-leading rusher as true freshman, though more than half of his 413 yards came against Presbyterian and UMass. He has tremendous speed but lacks the size to be an every-down back. Seymour sat out last season as a redshirt while recovering from an injury. He was Stacy’s primary backup as a true freshman in 2011. Don’t be surprised if Seymour leads Vanderbilt in rushing next fall.
3. Finding a No. 2 cornerback. The Commodores have received strong play from the cornerback position in Bob Shoop’s two seasons as the defensive coordinator. Andre Hal, a second-team All-SEC pick in 2012, is back for his second season as the starter, but Vanderbilt must find a replacement for Trey Wilson. Steven Clarke, the primary nickel back last fall, and redshirt freshmen Torren McGaster and Brandon Banks are the top candidates. Shoop loves to bring pressure, so it’s important that he is comfortable leaving his cornerbacks in man coverage.
4. Colby Cooke’s leg. One of the underrated aspects of Vanderbilt’s breakthrough season was the play of the kicking specialists. Placekicker Carey Spear rebounded from a disappointing sophomore season to convert 20-of-24 as a junior, and punter Richard Kent was consistently strong all season long. Spear is back for one more season, but Kent, a three-year starter, must be replaced. Colby Cooke, the successor, has a big leg but has yet to prove himself in a game. The Commodores need him to be solid in 2012.
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