Vanderbilt Camp in Review: Offense

With preseason camp wrapping up and Vanderbilt players starting class on the 24th, Vanderbilt has starting closing practices to the media in preparation for the September 3rd matchup against Elon. Although coach Franklin and his staff have not released a depth chart or announced starters, the position battles are clearing up and the playmakers for the 2011 season are emerging.



Quarterbacks

Redshirt senior Larry Smith has had more than his share of struggles over the past two years as starting quarterback for the Commodores, leaving the door open for transfer Jordan Rodgers and freshmen Josh Grady, Kris Kentera, and Lafonte Thourogood to challenge for the role of starting quarterback entering camp. Although coach Franklin has not officially named a starter, all signs point to Smith holding onto the job in his fifth year on campus. "All the things that he can control In terms of his footwork, in terms of his decision making, his ball location, his touch, and all those types of things, there's no doubt… I think you're going to see just as much improvement from Larry as you will the rest of the team," said Franklin. "I think it's a dramatic improvement from the spring until now." Despite showing that improvement on the practice field, Smith struggled to find consistency across the street at Vanderbilt Stadium during two controlled scrimmages against the first team defense. Only time will tell whether Smith can translate his success during practice against Elon in the opener.

Behind Smith, Jordan Rodgers and Josh Grady were the only quarterbacks to continue taking repetitions with the first team offense while the others moved to the scout team in preparation for the season opener. Coming off a shoulder injury last season, Rodgers has struggled to regain arm strength to hit receivers on long, downfield passes. Franklin, a former quarterback and quarterbacks coach, expressed that he believes Rodgers will continue to improve throughout the year as he regains the strength and confidence he lost while sidelined. Both Grady and Kentera showed signs of future potential, but struggled to quickly make reads downfield when under pressure. Lafonte Thourogood was unable to practice throughout the majority of the preseason due to injury.

Vanderbilt fans received some exciting news late in preseason drills when it was revealed that 2009 Mountain West Freshman of the Year Austyn Carta-Samuels had transferred from Wyoming to Vandy.

Carta-Samuels , who merited 3-stars from Scout.com, threw for 3,655 yards and 19 touchdowns in 21 career starts with the Cowboys. Playing just two seasons at Wyoming, he ranks ninth all-time at the school in pass completions (345) and 10th in total offense (4,413 yards).

Carta-Samuels will sit out the 2011 season and be eligible to play during the 2012 and 2013 seasons.

Running backs

The running back position will again be the strength of the Vanderbilt offense in 2011 after carrying much of the burden on offense last season. Both Warren Norman and Zac Stacy are healthy after struggling with injuries in the past and received about the same number of touches towards the end of camp. Although he appeared to struggle with lingering knee pain at the beginning of the preseason, Norman seems to have regained the quickness that made him a big play threat in 2009. With Wesley Tate moving from running back to wide receiver, the only other returning running back is redshirt junior Micah Powell. A former defensive back, Powell had no rush attempts in 2010 but could make his way into the rotations at running back if he can avoid the problems with fumbling that he has shown at times.

Freshmen Jerron Seymour and Mitchell Hester have turned heads during camp, and both could see the field if they can avoid injury. Seymour is arguably the quickest back on the team and uses his speed to beat defenders to the sideline and cut the ball upfield. That said, Seymour has been slowed by injuries towards the end of camp, so it may take a few weeks before he can contribute significantly on the playing field.

Wide receivers

After an impressive end to his freshman season in 2010, sophomore receiver Jordan Matthews has emerged as the offense's top playmaker during preseason camp. He is the only receiver to consistently get open and make tough catches against the experienced Vanderbilt secondary. Alongside Matthews, fellow sophomore Jonathan Krause has stepped up at receiver, although not with quite the same success. Krause shows impressive speed and can use it to make big plays downfield.

After Matthews and Krause, there is a significant drop in the playmaking ability of the receivers. Redshirt freshman Chris Boyd has shown potential, although he has continued to struggle with injuries and has missed some time during camp. Both John Cole and Udom Umoh will also certainly be a factor in the offense, although Cole has shown problems getting open downfield and Umoh still has not been able to catch the ball consistently. A player to watch in the receiving corps is former running back Wesley Tate, who made the switch to receiver during camp. Although he is still working on route running and a new set of plays, Tate possesses all the natural skills needed to become a weapon at the slot. As the season progresses and he becomes more comfortable in the position, he could see plenty of time on the field.

Tight ends

Led by redshirt senior Brandon Barden, the tight ends will be one of the strengths of Vanderbilt's offense. After leading the team in receptions last season, Barden will continue to be an integral part of the passing game in 2011. He was consistently able to get open and make plays across the middle of the field throughout preseason camp. After Barden, there is little drop off to redshirt junior Austin Monahan, who has missed each of the past two seasons due to injury. If Monahan, who is now completely healthy, can stay away from injuries this season, he could contribute to the offense nearly as much as Barden. Mason Johnston is the only other returning true tight end, seeing action in ten games last season. Coach Franklin has emphasized that he will always try to get the best players on the field, so if the receiving corps continues to struggle, Johnston could see increased playing time. Freshmen Steven Scheu and Dillon van der Wal have also been able to make plays downfield, using their length to serve as big targets across the middle of the field. The unit as a whole has struggled with blocking, and the tight ends have spent a reasonable amount of time going through drills with offensive line coach Herb Hand to improve their blocking ability. Heading into the season, blocking will certainly continue to be a focus in the tight ends unit.

Offensive line

Entering preseason camp, Franklin labeled the offensive line as a position of concern. At the end of camp, they are arguably the most improved. One big move was Josh Jelesky transitioning from defensive tackle to the offensive line before preseason camp, adding another body to the unit that desperately needed depth in 2010. Despite being somewhat undersized, Jelesky showed impressive blocking ability and was said to be competing for a starting position at right guard.

At this point, the players getting the most repetitions with what appears to be the first team offense are Ryan Seymour at left tackle, Jabo Burrow (if healthy) at left guard, Wesley Johnson at center, Mylon Brown at right guard, and Kyle Fischer at right tackle. That said, both guard positions are still in flux—redshirt junior Caleb Welchans or redshirt freshman Chase White could work their way into the starting rotation. Among the freshman, Spencer Pulley has had the most impressive camp and is most likely to be a significant factor on the field at tackle. Fellow freshman Joe Townsend and redshirt freshman Grant Ramsay have seen the most action at backup center with Logan Stewart sidelined with an injury.

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