Vanderbilt will bring back almost every starter that played offense in 2010 - but will that ultimately mean anything?
Bill Connolly at SBNation raised an excellent point in his early season preview of the Commodores; this team is returning every key component of its offense next season. Only Turner Wimberly, third wideout for the season opener against Northwestern and Joey Bailey, starting center in the same game, are gone; neither ended the 2010 campaign as starters. As a result, the team returns more than just the nucleus of last year's squad - they've got the whole damn atom.
The only problem is, that offense stunk. Few other systems could make the term "returning starters" as irrelevant as the Vandy offense can this season.
Vanderbilt returns every player from a unit that scored just 12 points per game in SEC play last year. That includes Larry Smith and his 47.4% completion percentage. It also counts receivers John Cole and Udom Umoh, each of whom had catch rates under 50 percent for passes thrown to them. Fortunately, it will also include a healthy Warren Norman and his 6.0 yards per carry average, as well as standouts like tight end Brandon Barden and a growing offensive line that has nowhere to go but up.
So what changes will be underway in 2011 under new Coach James Franklin? Spring practices gave us a few hints, but nothing has been written in stone yet. We'll look at last year's starters and who might be taking their places for this year's campaign. Today, we'll take a look at two of the positions that dragged down this team's drives throughout the season - quarterback and wide receiver.
2010 starters are based on the team's starting lineup for their season opener against Northwestern.
The quarterback race for the Commodores will be Smith's to lose, but that isn't saying much given the competition he'll be facing. Six players who haven't taken a snap in a NCAA game will vie for the starting position, with a pair of intriguing freshman and a Super Bowl legacy as part of that group.
Smith, in his fifth year in Nashville, hasn't been very impressive since starting his first ever game in the 2008 Music City Bowl. He's often struggled with accuracy and more often than not found himself scrambling for his life behind a continually rebuilding offensive line. He finished with 233 yards and a touchdown in the team's spring game, but still found himself in trouble thanks to a set of blockers that often failed to contain Vandy's pass rush.
He's a safe bet to start the season - but not a lock to finish it. Two talented freshmen, Grady and Thorogood, represent the best talent that James Franklin was able to lure to Nashville in his short tenure as a recruiter this spring. Grady and Thorogood are both superb athletes who could fill Smith's role as a mobile quarterback and be pressed into action shortly into their college tenures. Thorogood has the better size for the position at 6'3", 225 pounds, but Grady, an All-State QB from Florida, will give him competition for a spot on the depth chart. However, since they won't be able to see a Vanderbilt practice field until August, it will be tough to assess just how ready either one could be for NCAA play.
As in like 2010, Jordan Rodgers enters the season as a wild card. He's a seasoned JUCO player with a big arm and an even bigger twitter feed (seriously, it's awesome) whose brother just won a Super Bowl for some little team in Wisconsin. He missed all of 2010-2011 with a shoulder injury, but redshirted and should finally be healthy by the time fall practices roll around. He'll get a fresh look under Franklin's new regime and is likely the most qualified classic passer on the roster.
Behind those four, Charlie Goro looked decent in the team's spring game, but his playing time was related more to the team's lack of healthy QBs than a reflection on next season's depth chart. The same goes for walk-on John Townsley. Kris Kentera, a tall, skinny athletic thrower from Colorado will also get a chance to make his mark in fall practices, but is unlikely to see playing time unless he becomes a revelation in camp.
The AoG pick: Smith, then Grady/Thorogood, then Rodgers over the course of the season. Which is the better Vanderbilt tradition; the boat horn after touchdowns, or for mobile quarterbacks to get hurt at Dudley Field?
Matthews, in particular, shone for the 'Dores, scoring the team's final three touchdowns of the season (...over three games). Jerry Rice's little cousin has the potential to be Vanderbilt's best receiver since the Earl of Touchdowns left campus in 2008. His sophomore counterpart Krause showed flashes of being a legit deep threat who can compliment Matthews's more reliable mid-range game. The two combined for 22 receptions, 238 yards, and three touchdowns over the final three games of the season - a number that isn't that impressive until you consider just how stagnant the team's passing game was last year.
Umoh and Cole should still be contributors to this team, especially if Franklin puts Cole in a place where a small, quick receiver like him can thrive - the slot. Umoh will get action as well thanks to his hard charging style of run blocking and his potential value for Franklin's patented bubble screens. Both are solid football players who can make this team better, but 2011 should be the year that the seniors cede their starting roles to a pair of younger, more dynamic players in Matthews and Krause.
Chris Boyd is a redshirt freshman wild card and could step into the targets vacated by Tray Herndon and Turner Wimberly. Boyd was a solid recruit in Bobby Johnson's final class who chose the 'Dores over Georgia Tech and Illinois, amongst others. He's got a solid combination of size (6'4", 200 lbs) and speed that could press him into action in the red zone. It will be tough for him to oust any of the four guys ahead of him on the depth chart in his first year of SEC play, but he could turn into a player that gives the team an extra dimension on offense.
Brady Brown returns for his sophomore season with a chance to earn some snaps as well, and will be competing with Boyd. Both are tall, strong targets who can get downfield and will give Smith, Grady, or even Townsley a big target in the end zone. Dunham and Pruitt are a pair of redshirt guys who will be counted on in practice but aren't likely to have a significant impact in too many games this season. Sackey is a former walk-on whose hustle will get him a shot at special teams and possibly a few snaps as a fourth receiver for the 'Dores.
The AoG Pick: Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Krause start at wideout, while John Cole and Udom Umoh rotate as spot starters and fill the third receiver role depending on the set. Boyd and Brown see action throughout the season as well, giving the team a tidy six receiver set.
Next Week: Running backs, tight ends, and maybe even a look at the sieve known as the Vanderbilt Offensive Line.