It's official: Larry Smith will be at the helm for the Commodores to start the 2011 season.
VUCommodores.com released the team's first depth chart of the year yesterday, profiling the team's likely starters for Saturday's showdown with Elon. The list offers a few surprises and a relative lack of young players, as several freshman have been left off the chart entirely as redshirt decisions loom this week. Only two first-year players made the depth chart after camp, and both are at offensive line - Vanderbilt's most shallow position.
Today, we'll break down the winners of the Commodores' positional battles, starting with the offense. Some young talent will look to infuse the 'Dores in 2011, powering a squad that barely sounded The Admiral (that's the name of our boat horn, in case you forgot) in 2010. Of course, their success will all come down to how a disappointing offensive line can rebound after a dismal season. Can players like Ryan Seymour and Wesley Johnson build off a character-building 2010 and keep guys like Smith, Warren Norman, and Zac Stacy upright and marching to the end zone?
Let's look at who we'll be cheering for when Saturday rolls around:
Quarterback: Larry Smith is the man. There were some rumors that Jordan Rodgers had been pushing Smith for the starting job, but Smith's solid play kept him firmly entrenched behind center throughout the preseason. He'll be the guy running the show against Elon, but don't count Rodgers out yet. If Saturday's game turns into a blowout, we'll see the JuCo standout's first NCAA snaps as the game winds down. If he's impressive, there will be room for him to unseat the incumbent Smith, especially given this team's history of injuries at quarterback.
Wide Receiver: The youth movement has arrived. The first two receivers on the depth chart are sophomores Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Krause, two players that separated themselves from a deep well of players at the close of the 2010 season. Matthews has been especially impressive through the preseason in his second season with the Commodores, and the duo will provide a WR presence that the team has lacked since Earl Bennett left for the NFL. Udom Umoh earned the slot wideout spot, but it seems likely that his role could be up for grabs with the four athletes listed behind him - Akeem Dunham, Chris Boyd, Wesley Tate, and John Cole.
Running Back: Zac Stacy beats out Warren Norman. Stacy earned a first-team nod, but that doesn't mean that we won't be seeing Norman. Franklin's first depth chart features Fitz Lassing starting at fullback, but it's more likely that we'll see lots of two-back sets with Stacy and Norman getting plenty of touches throughout the season. Norman's been slowed by a knee injury in the preseason, and that development likely helped push Stacy into the starting role.
The most surprising development may be RS-Jr. Micah Powell's presence over freshman standouts Mitchell Hester and Jerron Seymour. Whether or not Franklin is paying lip service to Powell's experience and strong camp showing has yet to be seen, but we'll have a good idea of the former defensive back's role after Saturday.
Tight End: No surprises here - Barden and Monahan. Brandon Barden is the biggest goal line threat the Commodores have. Monahan, when healthy, is similarly talented. This lineup was probably one of Franklin's easiest decisions. Lassing and Mason Johnston will also get looks here, but the status of the team's freshmen TE studs, Dillon van der Wal and Steven Scheu, appears to still be up in the air.
Offensive Line: Mylon Brown replaces Logan Stewart on the line. With all five linemen returning in 2011 and a corp of inexperienced players behind them, there wasn't much of a competition at OL this season. Brown's emergence is the biggest story for a group of players that will need to show improvement after a rough 2010. He had a strong camp, so his promotion wasn't terribly surprising.
Stewart, who hasn't been practicing due to injury, was left off the depth chart entirely. This is a curious move as offensive line is the only position that features true freshmen in the positional breakdown. Could this mean that Stewart is headed for a redshirt year?
In all, it looks like a solid group who can build off last season's learning experiences. Smith will be pressed to lead a team that he's been a part of for five years now, but he'll have to deal with his third head coach in less than 18 months at a position that demands consistency. Stacy, Norman, Krause, and Matthews will all be counted on to become the explosive playmakers they've shown the potential to grow into. The offensive line will have to prove that they can learn from 2010's mistakes and that cohesion counts in the SEC.
Vanderbilt's offense will be better in 2011. They couldn't get much worse. But just how much better will be the difference between a 3-9 season and a 6-6 one. Smith will have more tools at his disposal than ever before - but whether or not this team will be able to capitalize once conference rivalries begin to take shape can't be revealed by a depth chart alone.
Stay tuned tomorrow, when we'll break down the defense and see who'll be dropping elbows alongside Chris Marve at linebacker.