For the most part, we know this Vandy team. We know that Chris Marve is going to be roaming the defensive backfield, intimidating opposing ballcarriers like Bolo Yeung in Bloodsport. We know that Brandon Barden will be the ultimate safety valve over the middle regardless of whether Larry Smith or Jordan Rodgers is behind center. We're even accustomed to a patchwork offensive line that began to gel in 2010 and should be stronger in 2011. But what we don't know is where the spark that turns Vanderbilt around after back-to-back 2-10 seasons will come from.
A good place to look might be at some of the youngest guys on the roster.
Twenty-one true freshman are currently going through their first NCAA training camp in Nashville this week. They compose a recruiting class that's become the recent standard Vanderbilt, dotted with three-star prospects and a number of athletes searching for permanent positions. However, a few players in Coach James Franklin's first partial recruiting haul stand out.
Athletes like Josh Grady, Mitchell Hester, and James Lewis are amongst the names that could end up sparking the Commodores in 2011. Despite a roster full of returning starters, the 'Dores have a number of players who could have an immediate impact in SEC play. Though many of these first-year recruits will merit some strong consideration for redshirt years, some will follow in the footsteps of guys like Warren Norman and Marve before them as true freshman difference makers at Dudley Field.
Though it's still pretty early into fall practices, let's take a look at the candidates:
Josh Grady - QB/Athlete - It only took Grady one weekend of practice to earn the third-string slot at quarterback, and scouts have described him as one of the most athletic members of the Commodore backfield. However, his playing time may hinge on whether or not he can handle snaps at other positions in 2011.
Grady is a 6'0", 185 lb dual-threat quarterback with solid arm strength and the speed/elusiveness to keep defenders at bay. However, with Smith and Jordan Rodgers in front of him on the depth chart, he might end up seeing some snaps at the Commodores' thinnest skill position, wide receiver. Though Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Krause lead a stable of decent players at WR, Vandy could mold Grady like D.J. Moore and Jamie Graham before him and run the freshman at wideout as a playmaking presence.
Since the 'Dores are instituting a new playbook under James Franklin, Grady will have a solid shot to earn snaps at quarterback. When you factor in the team's recent inability to keep their passers healthy for a full season, his ascent to SEC field time behind center seems like an even safer bet. Still, don't be surprised to see #7 lined up in unique packages just to get his talent on the turf as the season rolls on.
Jerron Seymour - RB - Seymour lines up at one of the team's deepest positions, but the first-year back has the quickness to earn some of the snaps that Kennard Reeves left behind. The 5'7" bowling ball of a runner chose the Commodores over schools like Tennessee and West Virginia with hopes of ascending to a starting role after the departures of Norman and Zac Stacy, but he'll have plenty of time to shine as an underclassman.
The 'Dores have only been practicing for a week now, but Seymour's performance has been strong enough to be singled out in official reports twice already. His diminutive size may hinder his ability to become regular starter in the SEC, but his current frame will serve him well for change-up duty off the bench. Seymour's speed and stocky frame could give Vanderbilt a Maurice Jones-Drew clone out of the backfield in 2011.
Andrew Williamson - S - Williamson is another freshman who plays at a stacked position, but the team's reliance on five or six DB sets should give him a chance to shine in his first year. Despite being the team's least-heralded defensive back recruit, he's turned heads with his play in practice. Though guys like Sean Richardson and Kenny Ladler are locks to start in front of him, the first-year athlete has pushed himself up the depth chart with strong performances so far.
Williamson is a smart player with solid size (6'1", 195 lbs) who has been turning heads thanks to his ability to adjust to the college game in the first week of training camp. However, whether or not he'll be able to keep up this edge will rely on his evolution as a play. One cause of concern is Williamson's apparent lack of speed, as he was recorded at a relatively slow 4.6 seconds as a high schooler in the 40 yard dash. Still, if Williamson's instincts are as solid as reports suggest, it will be hard to keep him off the field.
Derek King - CB - Cornerback Derek King is another player in the secondary who could have an impact as a true freshman, and will likely develop into a more explosive back than Williamson over time. He'll likely earn some looks on special teams before seeing time as a member of the secondary, despite earning some early praise from Franklin and his crew. King's athleticism and size (5'11", 200 lbs) will make him a dangerous gunner on special teams, and a potential ace on kick returns.
Spencer Pulley - OL - Realistically, any freshman on the offensive line has a chance to fill this final spot. Pulley is undersized at 280 pounds, but early returns suggest that he's the most developed member of the freshman class at his position. The team is perilously thin when it comes to blockers, and Pulley could be the guy the team turns to as a key backup in 2011. Though a redshirt year would be best for the player's development, having him available might be the best option that the team has this year.
Jake Bernstein has looked solid as well, and James Lewis, at 305 pounds, has the size, but neither has stood out more than Pulley so far (in part due to Lewis's injury). Any of the three could shed the redshirt tag and fill out the team's depth chart. However, after one week of play, it appears that Pulley has the inside track and could be just an injury away from meaningful SEC minutes.