James Franklin and Vanderbilt won their last seven games last season to finish 9-4. (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
By Zac Ellis
NASHVILLE -- For the first hour of Vanderbilt’s second spring scrimmage, the only noise echoing across Dudley Field at Vanderbilt Stadium was the constant barking of coaches in between the buckling of helmets and pads. There was defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, throwing his arms in the air and yelling, “Don’t make excuses! Make a play!” There was offensive coordinator John Donovan, bellowing from the opposite sideline, challenging the Commodores’ defense to step up against his attack. Then there was head coach James Franklin, watching the 95-play scrimmage carefully from midfield. He motioned his arm up and down, like one might do to an 18-wheeler on the interstate, as a tremendous blow horn vibrated from the stadium speakers to signal the end of each series.
But the energy changed in the second hour, as did the noise level. Before each play began, rap music blared from the P.A. system, adding an element of fun to practice while also providing a distraction similar to the crowds that might hound Vanderbilt in SEC road games. The music, like Franklin, can’t quite be ignored. It’s become a staple of the coach’s spring practices. “Franklin absolutely uses noise,” said Larry Leathers, Vanderbilt’s sports information director in charge of football since 2001.
The tunes are just one of many representations of change at Vanderbilt during Franklin’s tenure. While his first two seasons at the helm were described with words like potential, this year, there’s a need for of fulfillment. “There isn’t anything easy in the SEC,” Franklin said. “But there’s no doubt there’s an expectation [this season]. In the first year, we thought we could win. Last year, we believed we could win. Now there’s an expectation, not only externally, but internally in our program.”
Franklin has experienced his share of success at Vandy. His 15 wins during his first two seasons rank behind only Dan McGugin (16 wins in 1904-05) as the most for a second-year Commodores coach. His .577 winning percentage is the best mark at the school since Red Sanders won at a .578 clip from 1940-48. The team reached back-to-back bowl berths for the first time ever in 2012, and Franklin’s two most recent recruiting classes have been the two highest-ranked in program history.
This spring, Franklin wants to take the next step. He was blunt about his team’s limitations over his first two seasons, stressing the need for players to understand his direction for the program and the expectations that come with it. And as that direction fell into place, so, too, did the roster. This year’s group is Franklin’s deepest since arriving in Nashville. “You’re starting to see our recruiting really affect our team,” he said. “For example, we had seven scholarship offensive linemen last year. Now we have 15. That makes a huge difference.”
The offensive line is one of the highlights of the Commodores’ depth chart. Vanderbilt returns four starters, including tackle Wesley Johnson, who has seen action at three different spots on the line, has 38 career starts and has never been flagged for holding. A host of freshman offensive linemen, the vast majority of whom were redshirted in 2012, make the position one of the deeper groups on the roster. “To have eight, nine guys that you can rotate through, it’s a beautiful thing,” said quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels, who is competing for the starting job in 2013. “We can push tempo.” That’s good news for an offense coming off the most prolific season in program history; the Commodores racked up 4,936 yards of total offense last year, an average of 379.7 per game.
The task this spring is finding replacements for two key cogs from that attack. Last season’s offense was the first Vanderbilt unit to simultaneously produce a 2,500-yard passer (Jordan Rodgers), a 1,000-yard rusher (Zac Stacy) and a 1,000-yard receiver (Jordan Matthews). Of the three, only Matthews returns, so filling the voids under center and in the backfield is a priority for Franklin’s staff. The good news is the Commodores boast the personnel for a three-pronged attack at tailback to replace Stacy, who was the most decorated running back in school history. Wesley Tate and Brian Kimbrow combined for 789 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns last season, and Jerron Seymour, who redshirted in 2012, has impressed onlookers with his strong play this spring.
Photo gallery: Vanderbilt's Jordan Matthews among the SEC's top returning players in 2013
Carta-Samuels, who was Rodgers’ backup last season, has gotten plenty of first-team reps at quarterback. Redshirt freshman Patton Robinette is also in the mix, but Carta-Samuels brings experience as a starter after transferring from Wyoming in 2011. He amassed 3,655 passing yards and 19 touchdowns in two seasons with the Cowboys, but those numbers mean little to the SEC competition he would face as the ‘Dores’ leading man. So far, Franklin likes what he’s seen. “I’ve been pleased with his leadership,” Franklin said. “And he’s got a very strong arm and a natural feel for the game, understanding depth and spacing. He has a chance to have a really good year.”
It’s a new challenge for Carta-Samuels, whose only SEC start came against Presbyterian last season. But he’s not shying away from the opportunity. “I’m really excited about what our coaches can do,” the redshirt senior said. “We have the personnel to compete with anybody in the country. I just do my part. I can only do what I control. But everybody around me is making me look a lot better.” Whoever assumes the quarterback responsibilities will enjoy the return of Matthews and fellow wideout Chris Boyd, the SEC’s most productive receiving duo in 2012. Matthews and Boyd averaged 161.3 receiving yards per game. That bested the totals of more highly touted league tandems such as Texas A&M’s Mike Evans and Ryan Swope (155.2) and Tennessee’s Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson (155.1).
There are holes to fill across the roster, but for the first time in recent memory, there’s a sense stability surrounding these Commodores. Whether or not Vandy can reach new heights in the future -- and whether or not Franklin can continue to build on his brash approach to promoting his program -- the coach’s direction has taken hold in Nashville. Vanderbilt’s staff returns every coach from last season, the only team in the SEC that can stake that claim. Current players have heard testimonials from former Commodores proud of their program’s sudden resurgence, like the kind current St. Louis Rams offensive lineman Chris Williams offered upon his visit practice this month. And after one of the best seasons in history for a Vandy receiver, Matthews even opted in January to forgo the NFL draft to return to school, telling a room of reporters it was a “no-brainer” to come back to a team “that can take this school to an SEC championship next year.”
It all stems from the beliefs instilled by Franklin, who has convinced the Commodores they can contend. “I always say the role model who’s going to preach what you have to do on a daily basis needs to live it out on a daily basis,” said Carta-Samuels, “and [Franklin] does. He does it better than any of us.”
Franklin wore a plain black T-shirt while overseeing that spring scrimmage. Just behind his right shoulder was a word, pasted in bold white lettering: CHIP. Its meaning is clear, a sign of a program working to gain respect as a contender in the SEC. “That’s just kind of who we are,” Franklin said. “We’re a blue-collar program. We have a chip on our shoulder, an underdog mentality in this league. It just is another example of how we play.”