James Franklin's veteran receivers aren't members of any highly touted recruiting class, but they may make up the deepest and most talented pool of wideouts that the school has seen in decades. Jordan Matthews, Chris Boyd, Jonathan Krause, and Wesley Tate will give the Commodores a two-deep rotation on the depth chart that can compete with some of the SEC's best schools. Whether it is Jordan Rodgers or Austyn Carta-Samuels behind center, Vandy's quarterbacks will have their fair share of capable targets in 2012.
Leading the way is junior Jordan Matthews. Matthews overcame slow starts in his freshman and sophomore years to become the team's best receiver down the stretch for a blossoming Commodore offense. His rapport with redshirt senior Jordan Rodgers was part of an offensive revolution that carried Vanderbilt to a 6-6 regular season and a berth in the Liberty Bowl - just their second bowl in over 25 years.
The Alabama native made strides for Vandy as a true freshman, emerging at the end of the season to catch a touchdown pass in each of the team's final four games of the season. Though he ended the season with just 15 catches and 181 receiving yards, he earned 12 of those receptions in the final two games of 2010. In the midst of a stagnant and often painfully slow offense, Matthews stood out as a bright spot at Dudley Field.
That potential dimmed in 2012 with Larry Smith behind center. Matthews was unable to roll the momentum of the previous year into his new season despite starting over veterans like John Cole and Udom Umoh. He had just eight catches in the first seven games of the season as the offense struggled behind a developing offensive line and the overall adjustment to new coach James Franklin's schemes. It wasn't until Rodgers became the full-time starter behind center that Matthews truly blossomed.
The sophomore made the leap from potential-filled athlete to All-SEC caliber receiver in the second half of the season, exploding for 33 receptions, 661 yards, and four touchdowns in Vandy's final six games of 2011. He became a standout deep threat against some of the SEC's best defenses, hauling in passes of 30 yards or more in five of those six contests. Thanks to Rodgers's ability to stand tall in the pocket and get the ball downfield, Jordan Matthews became Vanderbilt's best wide receiver since Earl Bennett left Nashville in 2007.
The effect of Vandy's revitalized vertical passing game was clear. The 'Dores had averaged 21.6 points per game against BCS opponents before Matthews's breakout. Once the Jordan^2 train started rolling, that figure jumped to 28.8 points. This extra offensive dimension paid dividends for Vandy in 2011, spreading the defense and helping powerful back Zac Stacy churn out extra yards on the ground on his way to an All-SEC selection.
Vanderbilt will expect even more out of Matthews in his junior season. He was hampered by inexperience and team issues for the first halves of the past two seasons, but he should have no impediments in 2012. If he can get through the summer injury-free, he'll he the team's top receiver and he'll have a familiar face throwing him passes at quarterback. Better yet, the 6'3" speedster will get the chance to start his season against a South Carolina secondary that will be replacing both of their starting cornerbacks this season. The combination could lead to a big statement on opening night from the junior.
Matthews won't have the chance to touch Earl Bennett's career receiving records, but he does have the chance to prove him self as Bennett's big-play successor. He has the hands, speed, and instincts to provide the consistent deep threat that this team has longed for since 2007. Along with Rodgers, Boyd, Tate, and Krause, he'll give Vanderbilt a whole new outlook on offense, making the 'Dores look like a SEC team more in 2012 than ever before.
The expectations are high, but Matthews deserves the preseason scrutiny. He has proven himself to be the receiver that Franklin and his staff needs to diversify Vanderbilt's passing attack. If he can continue his breakout trajectory, he can drive the Commodores back to a bowl game. Even if he slumps a bit, he'll still make this team one of the most exciting Vandy football squads to grace Natchez Trace in years.