"Brand New Vanderbilt" was a phrase bandied about last season about the Commodores' program.
On the one hand, given that Vandy finished with a losing record for the 28th time in the past 29 seasons, the phrase rang hollow. On the other hand, first-year coach James Franklin led the Commodores to just their second bowl in those 29 seasons, and there were close losses to Georgia, Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee and Cincinnati. Each of those setbacks came by seven or fewer points, and the games with Georgia and Tennessee came complete with bad feelings on both sides. When the slogan is viewed that way, it actually fits.
The theme has carried over to the spring. For the first time in a while, SEC observers are paying attention to what is happening in Nashville. Vandy has hopes of challenging for the East Division title, but while that might be a bit much – a more appropriate slogan then would be "Are You Sure This is Vanderbilt?" – the Commodores no longer will be seen as a sure win by the other league schools on their schedule.
James franklin brought new energy to Vanderbilt in his first season.
Coach: James Franklin (2nd season)
Offensively, improving the passing attack remains important. QB Jordan Rodgers looked good in back-to-back games against Arkansas and Florida, but faded down the stretch, throwing for 200 yards just once in the final four games. WRs Chris Boyd and Jordan Matthews look as if they can be a solid duo, and both are downfield threats, which should help the rushing attack.
Developing depth at linebacker will be a spring priority on defense. Two big-play guys are gone in E Tim Fugger and CB Casey Hayward, and it obviously would help Vandy's cause if some defensive playmakers emerge this spring.
The biggest problem: Linebacker and tight end. Vandy was thin at linebacker to begin last season and couldn't afford any major injuries at the position, so, of course, starter Tristan Strong went down with an injury early in the season and Chase Garham, who had emerged as perhaps the best linebacker, got hurt late in the season. Strong may miss time in the spring. Meanwhile, Vandy lost four-year starter Chris Marve in the middle. There aren't even enough bodies to fill out a passable two-deep depth chart here, but three-star recruit Darreon Herring enrolled early. At tight end, three-year starter Brandon Barden graduated, and potential heir apparent Mason Johnston may miss the spring with injury. Youngsters Steven Scheu and Dillon VanderWal have a chance to prove something.
On the spot: RB Warren Norman. Norman, the SEC freshman of the year in 2009, has electrified crowds with long touchdowns from scrimmage and in the return game, but he redshirted last season because of the aftereffects of a 2010 let injury. In the meantime, Zac Stacy took his spot and might have been the SEC's best runner not named "Richardson" or "Lattimore" last season. Freshman Jerron Seymour also showed flashes of brilliance in spot duty. With touted freshman RB Brian Muldrow arriving in the summer and Andre Hal's emergence as one of the league's top kickoff returners last season, Norman needs to show he's recovered if he wants to have a significant role.
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On the verge: CB Derek King. Vandy had good depth in the secondary last season, but it lost Casey Hayward, the school's career interceptions leader and a second team All-American last season. Vandy has had a good recent history at corner, with D.J. Moore and Myron Lewis starring before Hayward. The coaching staff believes King could be the school's next great player at that position.
General overview: Excitement around the program is at a rare level; the Commodores unexpectedly went to a bowl last season and will likely be favored to win at least half their games this season. The good news is that the Commodores have a lot more depth and fewer holes than they've had in a while. But there are questions. QB Jordan Rodgers performed well after taking over for Larry Smith midway through last season, but he fell off markedly in two of Vandy's final three games. Wyoming transfer Austin Carta-Samuels, a former Mountain West freshman of the year, could challenge him. After depth was an issue last season, the offensive line will have more bodies than ever, and which youngsters seize playing time will be something to watch. Vandy's kicking game was unreliable last year; Carey Spear and Ryan Fowler split time, and with Colby Cooke coming this fall, they'll be pressed to prove themselves this spring.
For in-depth coverage of Vanderbilt athletics, go to VandySports.com
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