The Vanderbilt Commodores are heading into spring practice bigger and stronger than they've been since James Franklin arrived on campus. The coach also has players who've been with him long enough to know exactly what he expects.
They'll need all the pieces to fall into place for an encore to the best season at Vanderbilt in a century.
Franklin thinks his Commodores are ready.
“This year there's an expectation from within our program and our players,” Franklin said. “I think the thing I'm excited about for the first time this spring and really for fall camp, everybody in the program understands the expectations, how we do things, how practices are run, how we meet and how we conduct ourselves on and off the field.’
Heading into his third season, Franklin earned another contract extension after leading Vanderbilt to a second straight bowl game for the first time. The Commodores beat North Carolina State in the Music City Bowl to finish with the best record since 1915. It's the kind of success that has kept Franklin busy with athletic director David Williams and other school officials visiting other universities and stadiums looking for ideas on how to update Vanderbilt Stadium.
But the Commodores have more pressing needs when they hit the practice field Friday. Franklin has to replace starting quarterback Jordan Rodgers, who's now trying out for NFL teams along with running back Zac Stacy, the school's all-time leading rusher after both graduated in December. Rodgers completed 60 percent of his passes for 2,539 yards with 15 touchdowns and only five interceptions.
Austyn Carta-Samuels, who played two years at Wyoming before transferring to Vanderbilt, is ready to compete with Patton Robinette and early enrollee Johnny McCrary. Josh Grady also is switching from wide receiver back to compete for a chance to start at quarterback.
Whoever does win the starting quarterback job will have the luxury of throwing to All-SEC receiver Jordan Matthews, who decided to come back for his senior season, and Chris Boyd. Franklin said he went around to all his players reminding them that all jobs are back up for grabs again to increase competition.
“Jordan said, `Try to take it, is what he said actually,” Franklin said.
Running back is a bit thin on the roster right now, though senior Wesley Tate is back with sophomore Brian Kimbrow and redshirt sophomore Jerron Seymour competing to replace Stacy. A group approach may be what Vandy winds up doing.
Franklin does have 16 starters back this spring. He also has 15 offensive linemen compared to seven a year ago, which made practices and drills more challenging. But with the goal reaching the season opener Aug. 29 against Mississippi with a healthy roster, Franklin said they will have just a few live drills and practices.
“We're bigger, faster stronger, all these things that we want to have,” Franklin said.
The Commodores will be without their top defensive tackle Jared Morse with Rob Lohr and Colt Nichter now gone. Morse is not in school this semester and not with the team after violating university rules, but Franklin said Morse will have a chance to come back this fall.
Vanderbilt will have a couple of open practices March 23 and March 30 before wrapping up with a spring game April 13. Franklin is pushing Commodores' fans to fill up the stadium as a prelude to trying to sell out every home game this season.
“That's important for us to make a statement with the stadium full of people supporting Vanderbilt, wearing their black and gold and having a great day with the family,” Franklin said.