When it comes to tailbacks, Vanderbilt's got a stable of thoroughbreds ready to take the track. Unfortunately, with an overwhelmed line in front of them, they haven't gotten the chance to prove their worth just yet.
When Bobby Johnson left Vanderbilt in 2010, he made sure the cupboard was full at running back. Johnson's recruiting brought in the three-headed monster that will see most of the snaps in the backfield for the Commodores in 2011, inking Warren Norman, Zac Stacy, and Wesley Tate back in 2009. Norman and Stacy found an instant spot in the lineup for the 'Dores, each breaking the 100-yard mark on the ground in their first game at Dudley Field. However, their ascent to greatness has been stifled by a patchwork offensive line and a weak passing game that has allowed SEC opponents to stuff the box in preparation for Vandy's ground attack.
Norman came into 2010 with some high expectations, but injuries limited his effectiveness and kept the WarNo hype train at the station as Vandy stumbled to a punchless 2-10 season. Stacy earned extra reps in his place, gaining 355 yards on 66 carries, but ended up on the IR as well with a concussion as the season wound down. If healthy, both are consistent contributors who can rip off big runs and break open plays with their speed and elusiveness. However, they won't be able to do much if the team's offensive line and passing game can't relieve some of the defensive pressure that sunk their 2010 campaign.
Tate, on the other hand, has been slower to develop. After redshirting his first year on campus, he battled leg injuries throughout his first season of SEC play in 2010. Despite the auspicious start, he's been earning plenty of hype as the Commodores' most improved player heading into his sophomore season. Tate has the size (6'2", 225 lbs) to be an every down back at the NCAA's highest level, and will be counted on to complement the smaller Norman and Stacy in the backfield.
That's three established players for what will likely be two starting positions in the backfield, including one All-SEC performer in Norman, who earned accolades as the conference Freshman of the Year in 2009 and Second Team honors as a special teamer. However, if the injury bug strikes again, the 'Dores will be ready with a dense depth chart of potential substitutes.
Norman is still waiting for his follow-up session to 2009's breakout year. The junior played through injuries in 2010 but still was able to average six yards per carry for the season. His versatility means that he'll see a ton of plays throughout the season, and keeping him healthy has to be a top priority for the team and its trainers in 2011. Stacy is a solid, straightforward runner who makes things work. He's the perfect #2 that this team needs. Tate, the x-factor, could be a major asset in short yardage situations and morph into the team's every-down back thanks to his size and ability.
A pair of incoming freshmen will shake up the team's depth chart and push Vanderbilt's established starters for playing time in 2011. Mitchell Hester, a speedy back out of Florida, and Jerron Seymour, a powerful, compact runner with breakaway speed, could end up seeing significant playing time this season. While one of the two may end up redshirting, either one will be counted on as an insurance policy for a team that had trouble fielding a healthy backfield in 2010.
They'll give the team plenty of depth, though neither is the type of workhorse back that brings a new dimension to the team. Both are smaller than 5'9" and unlikely to outclass Norman or Stacy in the areas that the juniors already excel in. They'll probably see the field in mop-up and spot duty, but another rash of injuries could make either player a valuable commodity for the 'Dores.
Micah Powell is an unpredictable talent as well. The former defensive back and linebacker switched positions after last season, giving the team another big (6'0", 215 lbs) presence in the backfield. He's got solid speed and good lateral movement thanks to his background on defense, and his strength will give the team another tough-yardage back. However, how he handles the switch will determine his role in Vandy's offense this fall, as the redshirt junior hasn't played tailback in a game since high school.
Finally Josh Grady, a dual-threat quarterback and one of Vanderbilt's top 2011 recruits, could end up sneaking into the backfield as Coach James Franklin looks for a spot to play the talented freshman. Grady is a bit thin to handle many carries, but he's got the athleticism and play-making ability to earn snaps regardless of position this season. Don't be surprised to see him line up at any of the skill positions on offense in 2011, including tailback.