There’s excitement about the Vanderbilt Commodores, which is something new and different around Vanderbilt football.
The reason for that excitement is head coach James Franklin.
“There’s a buzz about Vanderbilt football right now that there hasn’t been for a long time. I think our fan base and the community is really excited about where we’re going, what we’re doing,” Franklin told the media before the beginning of fall practice.
“It’s amazing if you think about the 18 months since we’ve been here, been able to go to
a bowl game in our first year, been able to have a top-25 recruiting class. Facilities; brand-new Jumbotron; brand-new lights; new meeting rooms; $31 million indoor that we’re about to break ground on; highest GPA as a team that we’ve had in a long time. There’s just so many positive things going on right now,” he said.
But that was before fall practice. The coach knows that there are still steps to be taken on the journey toward being continually competitive in the Southeastern Conference.
“We also know we have a long way to go as a program and we continue to take it one step at a time,” Franklin said.
That journey has been taking place on the John Rich Practice facility this week where the Commodores have gone through three consecutive days of full pad work with restricted contact that has left Franklin smiling. Vanderbilt will go again Friday afternoon at the practice facility before moving to the stadium across the street to give the players their first look at the new Vanderbilt Stadium face-lift.
“I”m actually thinking about walking (the team) in tonight to take a look at it now that the (video board) is put together and the goalposts are up, the turf, just to get a feel for it. I think the kids are going to be really happy and proud of what we have out there, as well as the fans,” said Franklin after Thursday’s practice.
“It is the first step of many steps we still have to take, but — you guys can say it better than me — that stadium looks completely different than it did a year ago and there is still a lot of cosmetic things we can do to make it even nicer.”
As for the Thursday practice, Vanderbilt continued to build on the strides the team made on Wednesday.
“I thought the offense in general is executing really well which is really what offensive football, defensive foot ball and special teams is all about,” Franklin said. “I thought (junior running back) Warren (Norman) did well. They all did well. They executed. Quarterbacks, from a game management standpoint, did a really good job. I thought it was a really good practice.”
He tossed a bit of a challenge to his defense Thursday afternoon.
“I would like to see our defense play a little faster; they are a little indecisive right now,” Franklin said. “We’re going to play with the same aggression. We’re going to go after the ball and create turnovers.”
After a disappointing Tuesday effort, Vanderbilt has had two good days of work.
“I’ve been pleased with the No. 1s,” said Franklin. “There’s very few teams in the country where the No. 2s looked great or they wouldn’t be the No. 2s. I think our depth is much better. Our first year here you would put the No. 2s in and practice would go down hill. We’re still depending on true freshmen here on our two-deep, so I’m pleased. I’m pleased on both sides of the ball.”
After Wednesday’s session, Franklin spent a little extra time with his newest players.
“I kept the freshmen up there after practice because I think the retention of your freshman class is important,” he said. “I’ve been hearing some grumbling; they are going through the freshman blues right now fighting through the mental aspects and the physical aspects. All these guys were the best players in their areas and now they are starting from the bottom again. I talked to them about that.”
One of the areas that will be important to the Commodores continuing success will be the play at quarterback. Senior Jordan Rodgers is the incumbent after a season that saw him pass for 1,524 yards and nine touchdowns. He also rushed for 420 more yards and scored four touchdowns. The black mark on Rodgers’ stat line is 10 interceptions.
There is competition for playing time at the position from 6-foot-1, 224-pound junior Austyn Carta-Samuels.
“I think Austyn’s got really good arm talent and is a very good player,” Carta-Samuels said. “I think he’s his own worst enemy right now because when he makes a mistake he’s hard on himself; too hard on himself. He’s got to have a short memory playing the quarterback position. You’ve got to learn from it but you’ve got to move on. Right now he’s being too hard on himself. But that will come.”
The competition at quarterback is helping the Vanderbilt offense in its growing pains.
“In the seven-on-sevens we started out really strong,” Franklin said. “Rodgers started throwing a bunch of completions and we’re starting to understand concepts better and how to run routes. Last year we would run routes exactly the same way whether it was zone, whether it was man.. Your route needs to change according to the situation. Josh Gattis, our receivers coach, is doing a good job.”
Vanderbilt is coming off a 6-7 season that ended with a 31-24 loss to Cincinnati in the Liberty Bowl and has the luxury of 18 returning starters.
The biggest key for Vanderbilt this season will be finding ways to win the tight games. Last season the Commodores lost to Tennessee by six points, Arkansas by three, Georgia and Florida by five points each.
“It wasn’t just the games we won last year that affected the perception of us, but it’s the play week in, week out,” Franklin said. “We still have a long ways to go, I understand that. But we’re taking steps in the right direction. That’s what we have to continue to do.”
The Commodores get the first chance right off the bat when they host South Carolina in the season opener on August 30 when Vanderbilt will celebrate College Colors Day. The promotion, organized by NCAA Football and The Collegiate Licensing Company, encourages fans to support their school by wearing their favorite college colors on that day.
Vanderbilt officials are asking fans to wear black on Aug. 30 in support of the team’s blackout game against South Carolina. The players will also be wearing their all black uniforms for the game.