We asked Vanderbilt beat writer Jeff Lockridge of the Tennessean five key questions about the Commodores. Here are his answers.
1. How good is Jordan Matthews? Are we talking first round NFL Draft good? Top 15 good?
He is first-round good, in my opinion. I’m not sure about top 15, although when you start talking about where someone goes in the first round, it typically has more to do with teams’ needs. Part of the appeal of Matthews is how solid of a person he seems to be in addition to how hard he works in practice. I can say without hesitation that he is the best preseason camp and in-season practice player I have seen in my five years on the Vanderbilt beat, and that’s a tribute to his work ethic. Matthews is not perfect - he has very good speed but not blazing speed, and like any receiver he drops the occasional pass - but the guy is a big-game player, he has terrific hands and he doesn’t require much space to be considered open. He is undoubtedly the No. 1 option in this offense.
2. How close are the Commodores to knocking off a "Top Three" team from either division?
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Close. After watching Florida’s offense last Saturday at Miami, I’d say Vanderbilt should have a legitimate shot at winning in Gainesville in November. Vanderbilt and Ole Miss couldn’t have been more even in the season opener (much like last season in Oxford when the Dores pulled out a squeaker), and the Rebels could turn out to be a top-three team in the West this year. In the last two years, Vanderbilt has lost to South Carolina, Florida and Georgia by five points or less, so I think the belief and first-string talent are there (I’m not willing to say that the backup talent stacks up yet, but James Franklin is trying to bolster that through recruiting). Long answer made short, Vanderbilt needs to, and has the ability to, score a win over a top-three divisional team in 2013. Will it be this weekend? I'm not ready to say that, especially with South Carolina looking to rebound after the Georgia game.
3. Who are the most potent offensive weapons other than Matthews?
There is not another playmaker like Matthews on the field, but there are several guys who can be that offensive weapon on a given series. Jerron Seymour and Brian Kimbrow are both smaller running backs capable of breaking big plays with their quickness and changes of direction. Senior back Wesley Tate is more of the workhorse. It’s a decent three-back system, though the Dores would love to still be handing the ball off to Zac Stacy. Jonathan Krause is the fastest receiver out there for Austyn Carta-Samuels to target and made some nice catches in the first two games. Chris Boyd would be option No. 2, but the junior receiver has been suspended from the team for nearly four weeks after being indicted on a felony charge as an accessory after the fact in the Vanderbilt rape case. It would not surprise me if that charge gets pleaded down to a misdemeanor and he rejoins the team in the near future, but it may take a little time after that for Boyd to get back in the swing of things.
4. Who is the defensive back who is going to intercept nine passes this year? (It just always seems like there is one.)
Ha! Nine is a big number. Don’t see anyone jumping that high, but the team leader in the picks category should wind up being Andre Hal. Hal is one of the SEC’s better cornerbacks: good instincts, excellent speed and nice recovery time. The question is how often opposing quarterbacks are willing to throw in Hal’s direction? I wouldn’t necessarily label Hal a shutdown corner like Casey Hayward was a couple of years ago, but he is certainly a guy you want out there. Steven Clarke is a formidable senior at the other corner who plays (and talks) a pretty good game. The best way to attack Vanderbilt’s pass defense is probably to pick on its nickelbacks and the young linebackers that get forced into coverage.
5. How is the ongoing story about four former players who have been charged in a sexual assault case affected this year's team?
Boyd’s absence has had the biggest impact from an X’s and O’s standpoint. The offensive sets have changed from a lot of three-wide stuff to more two-tight end and two-back sets (although the tight ends, running backs and H-backs will play receiver in some alignments). The third receiver, which used to be Krause’s role, has belonged to true freshman Jordan Cunningham for the first two games. As far as the four who were booted off the team back in late June, only JUCO tight end Brandon Vandenburg, who is at the center of this whole ordeal, was going to play any real game reps this year – and the extent of his role had yet to be determined since he just arrived on campus this summer. In terms of emotions and focus, I think the incident is far enough removed where the players have been able to keep their minds on the task at hand. But if these cases go to trial during the season and players on the witness list like Carta-Samuels are called to testify, your question will certainly come up again. As for Franklin, who had another allegation made against him in a Buzzfeed story last week regarding the case, this uncomfortable saga won’t go away anytime soon.