Football season is just over two months away, and expectations in Nashville have never been higher.
Vanderbilt is coming off of a record-setting 9-4 season that ended on a seven-game winning streak and culminated with a 38-24 victory over North Carolina State in the Music City Bowl. More importantly, this team developed into one of the most exciting programs to watch in the SEC behind an offense led by Jordan Matthews, Jordan Rodgers, and Zac Stacy. Rodgers and Stacy are now on NFL rosters, but Matthews and his crew of wideouts will return in 2013 to make sure the Commodores still have their spark this fall.
Matthews and Chris Boyd make up one of the best receiving duos in the SEC and potentially the NCAA. The pair combined for 144 receptions and 2,097 yards in 2012 along with 14 total touchdowns. More importantly, they helped Rodgers grow as a college quarterback and opened up this team's offense to fire on all cylinders. While Stacy and the Vandy running game played a role there, the Commodore receivers were an indispensable factor in the most successful season in Nashville since 1913.
With Josh Grady shifting back to quarterback and Wesley Tate now this team's featured tailback, the Commodores will only have three returning wide receivers that notched receptions in 2012. That should press some of this team's untested youngsters into action, but the 'Dores are in good shape when it comes to depth. Last year's recruiting class brought in five WR recruits, including three players that were dubbed four-star players by ESPN. Jordan Cunningham, a sure-handed player who turned down offers from Alabama, Florida State, and Stanford to play in Nashville, may be the difference-maker in that group, but athletes like Carlos Burse and DeAndre Woods could end up making an impact depending on how summer practices turn out.
With that in mind, let's take a look at Vanderbilt's top-heavy receiving corps. Matthews and Boyd will be the featured stars of the Vandy offense, but one valued veteran and a handful of new contributors could add an extra dimension to James Franklin's team. In 2012, players like Kris Kentera and Brian Kimbrow stepped up for the 'Dores. Here are the receivers who could do the same in 2013.
Jordan Matthews - All-SEC, All-American; let's just say that the bar has been set pretty high for Matthews in 2013. The senior returned to Vanderbilt after briefly flirting with the draft and immediately gave this team a high octane scoring threat at wideout. He led the SEC in receptions with 94 in 2012 and set a school record with 1,323 yards through the air. That followed up a 2011 season where he averaged 110 yards per game after Jordan Rodgers was installed at quarterback, so he's lived up to lofty expectations in the past. The 6'3" receiver proved to be a solid deep threat (five receptions of more than 50 yards in '12) who wasn't afraid to mix it up with defensive backs and rise up in traffic to pull down tough passes.
Matthews may end up being the engine that drives the Commodore offense. He proved as a junior that he can handle defensive pressure and break away from double teams to make plays and keep drives alive. That'll be an important asset in 2013, since most opposing coaches will be bearing down on Vandy's receiving corps this fall.
If you needed any reason to get excited for Vanderbilt football in June, just watch his highlight reel below. Unsurprisingly, it starts with the senior adjusting to Jordan Rodgers's underthrown bomb against Wake Forest - a touchdown pass that wasn't even intended for Matthews. That's a master course in field awareness and athleticism, taught by a player who may go down as the greatest wideout in school history.
Chris Boyd - Boyd is an excellent complement for Matthews, but the physical wideout could easily be a #1 receiver on many other teams in the SEC. The 6'4" target came on strong as 2012 progressed, scoring touchdowns in four of Vanderbilt's last five games and blossoming as opposing defenses focused on Matthews downfield. His breakaway down the sideline in the final minute of the Ole Miss game clinched a major come-from-behind victory and gave this team a much-needed confidence boost as the season wore down.
If Austyn Carta-Samuels needs to find a target in the end zone, Boyd is his guy. The two hooked up for four receptions and 90 yards in Carta-Samuels's lone start in 2012. He's a physical receiver who uses his size and great hands to haul in passes in high pressure situations. His balance and footwork allow him to be very effective on the sideline and extend the field away from his defenders. He's not as elusive or versatile as Matthews, but his deceptive speed and ability to create first downs makes him an invaluable member of the Commodore offense.
The Overlooked Weapon:
Jonathan Krause - Krause was more widely known for his punt returns in 2012 - he's been named an All-SEC special teamer by both Phil Steele and Athlon Sports so far this preseason - but he's also a sneaky receiver who could thrive as a slot weapon in 2013. The 5'11 burner (a 4.41 second 40-yard dash in high school) wasn't utilized much in Jordan Rodgers's passing game, but he has the tools to be a short-range threat to complement Matthews's deep game and Boyd's size.
Playing in the slot will be an adjustment for a player who has regarded as a home run threat earlier in his Vanderbilt career. Krause will have to prove that he can handle himself over the middle and use his speed to separate himself from defenders in the mid-field. After catching 47 passes in his first two years at Vandy, he dipped to just 11 receptions last year. If he can regain that early form and become a complementary weapon for this offense, he'll bolster a receiving corps that looks shallow on paper behind Matthews and Boyd.
The Returning Veteran:
Tip McKenzie - If Krause doesn't slide into the slot position, then McKenzie could see his role in the offense grow. The redshirt freshman starred in the Spring Game, connecting with Johnny McCrary for four receptions and leading all wideouts with 83 receiving yards and a touchdown. At 5'8" and 175 pounds he's on the small side, but his lateral quickness makes him difficult to shadow and his breakaway speed could turn him into a home run threat. Questions will remain as he enters his first season of NCAA play, but he could emerge as a playmaker for the 'Dores in 2013.
Jordan Cunningham - Cunningham was the second-ever player from the ESPN150 to commit to Vanderbilt. He's an intelligent player who has a strong combination of speed, size, hands, and athleticism. He has great vision and the ability to extend plays thanks to his ability to make defenders miss after a reception. If he performs well this summer, he may be pressed into action immediately for a receiving corps that needs depth. One look at his highlight reel suggests that he'll have a good chance to earn snaps in 2013.
DeAndre Woods - Woods, at 6'3" and 210 pounds, may be able to give the 'Dores a big end zone target early in his NCAA career. He runs well after the catch and uses his body to box out defenders and shed tackles. If he can parlay that size into solid blocking around the edges, he could see playing time as a true freshman for Franklin's team. His build and speed could make him a valuable special teams player as well.
Carlos Burse - Burse turned down Florda, Oklahoma, and Virginia Tech to play for James Franklin, and the four-star receiver was a key member of Vanderbilt's Georgia-based recruiting haul. He's a strong receiver that runs crisp routes and should develop into an outside threat for the Commodores, but his current path may be blocked by the Matthews/Boyd combination in front of him.
Latevious Rayford - Rayford is a well-rounded receiver that will need to add bulk to his 6'1", 175 pound frame before he'll see significant playing time in Nashville. He seems headed for a redshirt season, but his solid hands and willingness to play between the hashes and challenge linebackers could make him an asset early on for Vanderbilt.
Gerald Perry - Perry is smaller than Rayford and with his quickness he seems destined for a key role in the slot for Vandy. He has 4.4 40 speed and is shifty in the open field, but he'll have to get bigger to survive in the SEC. Like Rayford, he may be destined for a redshirt season while he bulks up and adjusts to the NCAA.
Alex Grecco is from Rhode Island, cradle of American football. Erik Allen and Trey Wilkins are both 5'11" and came from Catholic-sounding high schools. Trent Pruitt returns punts and has been a valuable special teamer for James Franklin. None of these four are likely to see playing time at wideout, but all will be thrown into the mix on punts and kickoffs for the 'Dores this fall.