By Ron Wynn
Vanderbilt University fans are hoping many things change under the leadership of new coach James Franklin, particularly the offensive woes that saw the school finish near the bottom last season in every major category. But one thing is remaining the same, at least for the home and season opener. Monday it was announced fifth-year senior Larry Smith would be the starting quarterback Saturday against Elon. Though he had competition during preseason practice from junior Jordan Rodgers and freshman Josh Grady, Smith won the job. His name appeared first on the depth charts when the lineup was released. Coach Franklin also named offensive coordinator John Donovan as the person who will call the plays.
“I’m not sure that will go the entire season,” Franklin said. “We’ll see. That doesn’t mean that I will not call (any) plays during the game, and that I haven’t been involved in the entire game plan. But John will be the one to call it on a day-to-day basis.” Smith’s athletic ability, particularly his elusiveness and speed, have never been doubted. But his accuracy, whether on long, short or midrange passes, as well as his decision making and leadership ability have often been questioned by those weary of seeing the Commodores look feeble, regardless of the competition. A big part of Franklin’s mission involves winning games like this one, especially at home.
The Smith decision was not the only major one made regarding the offense. Last year’s starting tailback Warren Norman,was unable to practice most of the spring and summer due to injury. He’s is now number two, with Zac Stacy getting the call as the starter. The top three receivers will be sophomores Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Krause, with senior Udom Umoh slated for plenty of activity in three-receiver packages. “He really didn’t make it known to me,” Smith said regarding the QB decision. “But I took the majority of the first-team reps through the whole preseason.” Smith’s ability to salvage plays and escape sacks, plus his experience and knowledge of the offense, are big pluses for Franklin. But only time and a few games into the season will determine whether those qualities overcome past tendencies towards long stretches of erratic play and wasted scoring opportunities. Still, while offensive improvement is vital, defensive stability is equally important. Franklin is expecting big things from free safety Kenny Ladler, a strong hitter and good coverage man. He’s hoping Ladler will be his captain in the secondary.
The linebacker corps, historically one of the school’s strongest positions on either side of the ball, will feature Chris Marve in the middle, with Chase Garnham and Tristan Strong on the outside. Vandy also needs better run support and increased pressure on the passer from defensive ends Johnell Thomas and Tim Fugger, as well as defensive tackles Rob Lohr and new starter Colt Nichter. Any team that struggles to score like Vandy, especially against SEC opponents, relies on quality kickers and special teams play. Carey Spear, last year’s kickoff specialist as a freshman, is now the field goal kicker. Spear did so well in preseason practice he was named a captain, along with Smith, Fischer, Marve and Casey Hayward. They also have last year’s place-kicker Ryan Fowler available in reserve.
If Vandy has any trouble with Elon it will not only be a surprise, but an indicator Franklin’s first season will be a troubled one. Elon is an FCS school playing in a weak football (Southern) conference and should be outmatched on the road against any SEC team. It’s the first of three straight home games for Vandy. The second is with Uconn from The Big East, then the conference opener with Ole Miss, the first true test. If Vandy gets through that stretch at 2-1 or 3-0, their schedule has at least two other games where they should be the favorite (Army, Wake Forest) and one that now seems a tossup (Kentucky).
Of course a 1-2 mark would be a big disappointment. If they could manage one more win among the trio of Tennessee, Arkansas and Georgia, that would put them in the best possible situation at 6-6 and bowl eligible. Few observers think they can beat Florida, Alabama or South Carolina, and realistically they’ll probably lose at least two of those other three. But a first-year mark of 6-6 or even 5-7 after consecutive two win years would restore excitement to Vandy games. The key thing is they absolutely cannot afford to lose games where they are the favorite. Elon, Army and Uconn have to go in the win column, and they’ll have a reasonable shot with Kentucky, Ole Miss and a Tennessee team still trying to regain its luster (though that’s a road game). Things get underway Saturday at 6:30 p.m. The Vandy/Elon game and all their home and road contests air on WRQQ-FM (97.1) and also on Sirius XM satellite radio.