The last two seasons, Vanderbilt's defense simply hasn't been good enough often enough. While the offense has gotten its share of criticism -- and rightfully so -- for being inept, the D has too often bent and broke.
New defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has a one-word remedy for the unit's woes: Pressure. He plans to put plenty of it on opponents this year, starting with Saturday night's season opener against visiting Elon.
"I certainly don't believe in bend but don't break," Shoop said. "I believe in trying to dictate tempo. I think we will be a very aggressive defense."
With eight starters back on defense, including a pair of players who could start for any Southeastern Conference team in middle linebacker Chris Marve and cornerback Casey Hayward, the Commodores have a nice blend of experience and athletic skills.
But for Shoop's schemes to work, the front four will have to do a better job of shedding blocks and dictating to offensive lines. Far too much the last two years, they've been pushed back, pushed around and pushed into the loss column.
Opponents have been able to run too easily, giving them the ability to pick when to throw. Shoop plans to mix up alignments if need be so that Vandy can maximize its strengths and force the opposition to become one-dimensional.
That would allow Shoop to play with the aggression he desires and could lead to a more successful 2011 for the defense -- and the Commodores.
--QB Austyn Carta-Samuels is transferring to the Commodore program from Wyoming, where he started 21 games over the last two seasons. As a freshman, Carta-Samuels led the Cowboys to a 7-6 record and a double overtime win over Fresno State in the New Mexico Bowl. He completed 59.7 percent of his passes for 3,655 yards and 19 TDs at Wyoming. Carta-Samuels will have two years of eligibility, starting in 2012.
--Coach James Franklin will make his Vanderbilt debut Saturday night when Football Championship Subdivision foe Elon comes to Nashville. Franklin is trying to become the school's first coach to win his initial game since Woody Widenhofer presided over a 29-12 victory over North Texas in 1997.
--The Commodores lost last year's season opener 23-21 to Northwestern, but had won their previous three season openers. This is the first of three straight home games for them.
SERIES HISTORY: First meeting.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: There is again the promise that this unit will be more explosive than it has been since the likes of Jay Cutler and Earl Bennett left campus, but whether they are or not will come down to the same old question that's gone unanswered for years: Can the line consistently block for the run and protect the passer? If so, this is a good game for the unit to build confidence. It's unlikely that Elon has the depth or athletes to hang with a SEC opponent for four quarters, although it would be a good idea if the offense came out on point and avoided the turnovers which might create second half anxiety.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The back seven is solid with All-SEC candidates Chris Marve at middle linebacker and Casey Hayward at cornerback. But the unit's success will hinge on how guys like Colt Nichter, T.J. Greenstone and Tim Fugger play up front. If those linemen can whip their opponents at the scrimmage line and get penetration into the backfield, Vandy can make offenses one-dimensional and be able to apply the pressure it wants. If the line is getting blocked consistently and opponents can run the ball for four yards or more per carry, it will be another tough year.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "If you look at the big picture, I think we have made tremendous strides. We just have to keep doing it." -- Franklin on his team's effort in preseason camp.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Elon at Vanderbilt, Sept. 3 -- It's the first game as Commodores coach for James Franklin against a Southern Conference opponent which was 6-5 last year. On paper, it should be an easy win, even for a squad which is 4-20 in the last two seasons. But as James Madison proved to Virginia Tech last year, those who take an FCS foe for granted could wind up embarrassed at the end of 60 minutes.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Come out on point on both sides of the football, taking the game to an opponent with 23 fewer scholarship players. If Vandy can get the running game going downhill and keep the Phoenix from doing the same, it should have an enjoyable opening night. The defensive line has to prove it can win most of the plays so that it can make Elon one-dimensional.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
QB Larry Smith -- With backup Jordan Rodgers looking good in preseason, Smith responded by following up a strong spring practice with good work of his own in August. But Smith would be well advised to play solid football right away so that the coaches don't start thinking about making a change. It will be interesting to see if the mechanical changes in Smith's footwork can make him a more accurate passer than he has been the last two years.
WR Jordan Matthews -- Media who cover this team regularly say Matthews is going to be this team's most dangerous threat offensively. After catching TD passes in the last four games of 2010, Matthews has been nothing but excellent in preseason, making plays no Commodore receiver has made since Earl Bennett was scorching opposing cornerbacks from 2005-07.
DT Colt Nichter -- Taking to the new coaching staff's philosophy of more aggressive play up front, Nichter has become a playmaker in the preseason, consistently getting to the quarterback. If he can do that during the games, he could start attracting double-teams from the opponents and that would open up pass-rushing lanes for his teammates.
--C Wesley Johnson moved from offensive tackle, where he started every game in 2010, in the preseason and appears to be making a quick adjustment to his new position. Barring something surprising occurring, Johnson will start at center against Elon.
--QB Lafonte Thourogood, a highly-touted true freshman out of Virginia Beach, has been banged up through parts of training camp and appears unlikely to play, barring injuries. A redshirt season is a possibility for Thourogood.
--RB Micah Powell moved from defensive back to offer more depth due to an injury to RB Warren Norman, a two-year starter. Powell has been somewhat of a revelation, possibly earning playing time behind junior Zac Stacy and Norman in the opener.
Shoop's defense is key for Vanderbilt
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