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June 20, 2011
New coach, different results?
2010 Record: 2-10, 1-7
Q&A with Chris Lee of VandySports.com
Q - Coach Franklin has made it very clear that he's going to be more aggressive as far as trying to bring better athletes to Vandy. How does hope to get this accomplished?
A - "One of James Franklin's main objectives is to build a fast, dominant defense. He's taking a page out of the old Nebraska playbook when he at times talks of getting fast guys, bulking them up, and moving them to other positions, i.e., make safeties into linebackers, linebackers into defensive linemen, etc. We've seen this already with the signing of 6-foot-4, 220-pound linebacker Jimmy Stewart--whom I think they're hoping can play end--and then the recent commitment of razor-thin Georgian Steven Weatherly, who can fly but will need bulk to play end.
"On offense, they want to rely more on big plays. I would presume that would mean more of an emphasis on speed there, too. Of course, wanting to do something and doing it are two different things, and the bottom line is that you have to have the horses to win, which they don't right now. The good news if you're a Vandy fan is that Franklin has an tremendous work ethic, remarkable attention to detail, seems to be an out-of-the-box thinker, and has an engaging personality that lights up a room. He's taking a page out of baseball coach Tim Corbin's playbook, using education as an asset and not a liability, and emphasizing to players that they can be a part of the greatest turn-around in college football history.
"While Franklin isn't beating the Georgias of the world in recruiting for the most part, seeing him close by flipping players who'd previously been committed to schools like Mississippi State, Nebraska, and Virginia Tech at the end of last recruiting class was quite impressive. He's had a nice start this year as well."
Q - Will Larry Smith be the quarterback or will Jordan Rodgers get his shot? How do you see this battle shaping up?
A - "That's the biggest question of the fall. I think that privately, they want Rodgers to get the job. He fits the system better, and Smith has had four years to seize the job, but the results have been lacking. On the other hand, I think they recognize that quarterback coaching was a liability under the previous staff. They also realize that his supporting cast was sub-par last year, especially along the offensive line. And Franklin did have good things to say about Smith in the spring. For all his deficiencies, Smith has a strong arm and his mobility probably places him in the upper half of SEC quarterbacks, if not the upper third. So the tools are there, even if the results aren't. There have also been questions about Smith's leadership. So maybe if the staff can improve what goes on between the ears, there's a chance to salvage something.
"Rodgers is likable and mature way beyond his years. His story is strikingly similar to his brother, Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, in that he went to community college first to try to improve his status as a Division One prospect. He played well as a JUCO guy, but hasn't really been healthy much since he got to Nashville. He had shoulder surgery over the winter, and did not participate in any live action this spring. So really, what he's capable of doing in the SEC is a total mystery. VU also signed three quarterbacks in Josh Grady, Lefonte Thorougood, and Kris Kentera. Grady had a slew of offers from just-outside-the-top-25-type programs, Thorougood was the only quarterback in Virginia Tech's class until Franklin flipped him the night before signing day, and Kentera has the best arm, but his completion percentage was under 50 percent as a senior. All are good athletes, and Franklin insisted on signing day that he signed them with the expectation that they'd compete for time immediately."
Q - What's the latest on Warren Norman and his hand injury? Will he be ready to go and how key is he to the success of the offense?
A - "Norman sat out all spring as a precautionary measure. Nobody expects the injury to hold him back once August practices begin. Norman is probably VU's best offensive weapon, and of course has been a very valuable kick returner. And with the emphasis on big plays, Norman may be the team's best threat for that. The good news for VU, though, is that Zac Stacy (when healthy) has proven to be just about as good as Norman, though his running style is a lot different (think Dallas's Marion Barber, or former NFL star Travis Henry). Plus, VU also got a good spring from Wesley Tate, who benefited from the extra reps with Norman gone. Franklin will probably use all three backs this fall."
Q - How much of a difference will having all 11 starters back on offense make for Vandy?
A - "A year of experience helps, but the fact remains that this group was terrible a year ago. The key will be the development of the offensive line, and the good news is, another year of experience should be helpful here. Left tackle Wesley Johnson was VU's top recruiting target in the class of 2009, and some think right tackle Ryan Seymour is good enough to play in the NFL. Fifth-year senior Kyle Fischer had a good spring, and seems to have found a home at guard, and Logan Stewart had some promising moments as a freshman. But that's about where the superlatives stop. It's a thin group, and the backups have very little experience. The group that could potentially take a huge step forward is the receivers. Jonathan Krause made a lot of big plays a year ago. Nobody could figure out why Jordan Matthews didn't get time a year ago; he caught TD passes in the fourth quarter of four-straight games to end the season, but was mostly buried on the bench until the end of games. He looks like a potential top-flight SEC receiver at some point. And Chis Boyd, who redshirted last year, looked as good as Matthews at times. And, of course, Brandon Barden is one of the league's top receiving tight ends. So as bleak as last year looked, there are some causes for hope. It will depend on how well VU can protect and develop a quarterback.
Q - Defensively, four players earned some type of post-season honor, what do you see as being the defense's strength this fall?
A - "I think the secondary has a chance to be SEC-average, perhaps a bit better. But a year ago, it was the most disappointing unit on the team. As weak as VU was up front, you figured teams would line it up and pound it down their throats. But the secondary was so awful, any team that had any semblance of a passing offense seemed to see a better opportunity there. It was shocking, because that unit had some talent and had been as consistent as any unit in the Bobby Johnson era. The unit was really, really young a year ago, and no doubt, that factored in. And sometimes when things go as bad for VU as they did a year ago, the whole thing goes bad... especially when coaches know by mid-season that they won't be back, and the players know it, too. A fresh start for everyone could reveal the unit wasn't nearly as bad as it looked a year ago. As far as positives go... Casey Hayward is an elite player. He ranked fifth nationally with six interceptions a year ago, and will be a first day draft pick next year. He also has the ability to return anything he gets his hands on for a score, though that hasn't happened yet. Opposite Hayward, Trey Wilson could get a chance to start. He was buried on the depth chart a year ago but had a tremendous spring. Eddie Foster, who started but played poorly last year, will also contribute. At safety, Sean Richardson is good in run support, but was poor in coverage a year ago. Sophomore Kenny Ladler is one of the team's most-talented players, and Andre Simmons, also a sophomore, was a highly-recruited player. It may be the team's deepest position, too. Steven Clarke, Karl Butler, and Andre Hal all showed promise in spots as true freshmen last season."
Q - Prediction time. How do you see the Commodores' season playing out?
A - "James Franklin talks a good game, and has done his best to get fans excited and on-board immediately. That energy and enthusiasm should be good for an extra win, perhaps two. And, the schedule gets easier. Elon should be an automatic win. UConn won't be nearly as good, and that'll be in Nashville. Army is on the schedule instead of Northwestern. Kentucky should be down from the last two or three years, and in-state rival Tennessee is still very much in a state of transition as well. And VU has had Ole Miss's number many years, even when the Rebels are the better team. Still, games are often won and lost in the trenches, and Vandy was awful in those areas a year ago. I addressed the offensive line moments ago. The defensive line should be a bit more talented, but just getting to SEC-average would be a minor miracle on either side. And the linebackers, outside of Chris Marve, were as bad as they've been in two decades last year. And even with the possible wins I mentioned, that view is admittedly optimistic. At least half those teams are better than VU. I'm expecting 3-4 wins out of the 'Dores in 2011, and I think four would make James Franklin's debut season a success."