The graduating seniors on the 2013 Vanderbilt football team have accomplished more than they probably could have hoped for. Even as we appreciate their achievements, we are left to worry about the large shoes that need to be filled next year. Our departing seniors on defense include: Kenny Ladler, Andre Hal, Javon Marshall, Chase Garnham, Karl Butler, Steven Clarke, Walker May and Jared Morse. While the back-ups at all defensive positions showed promise this year, it is sobering to consider that we will need to replace our entire secondary, two-thirds of our starting LB corps, and a number of other quality defenders in 2014. Graduates on the offensive side of the ball include starters: Austyn Carta-Samuels, Wesley Johnson, Jordan Matthews, Jonathon Krause, Fitz Lassing as well as Wesley Tate. Kicker Carey Spear will be moving on too after Birmingham. It is no surprise we are selling lots of tickets to our bowl game – this team deserves a big send-off.
During these seniors' tenure we have witnessed Vandy's first nine win season since before Prohibition, our first ever trip to three straight bowls, our first "same season" wins over Georgia, Florida and Tennessee, and the first back-to-back wins over the Vols since 1925-26. We closed last season on a seven game winning streak – and have won 15 of our last 19 games. While the team concept always takes the forefront in football, it is as inevitable as the annual Heisman debate that individual accomplishments should be recognized too. In that vein, here are a few post-season awards handed down from the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Most Valuable Player: Offense – Jordan Matthews.
This was not a difficult choice. Jordan Matthews should be a first-round NFL draft selection. He was voted first team all-SEC, and first team All-American by Athlon and USA Today. He took second team All-American honors from Sports Illustrated and third team from Associated Press. Matthews put the team on his back frequently – he eclipsed 100 receiving yards in eight games this year. Whether he was hurdling UMass defenders on his way to the end zone, making a circus catch to save the game versus Wake, or reeling in thirteen catches versus Tennessee, he was always the focal point of the opposing defense. It didn't matter – he still found a way to get open. He leaves Vandy as the SEC career leader in receptions and receiving yardage.
Honorable Mention: Austyn Carta-Samuels; Wesley Johnson.
When the season began, Carta-Samuels was the big question mark. He answered a lot of concerns right out of the gate, throwing for 300 yards against Ole Miss. Carta-Samuels completed 68.7% of his passes on the season (and posted a really impressive quarterback rating over 140.) It is easy to forget, too, that "the scandal" cost Carta-Samuels several key targets. As a result, everyone in the stadium knew where he wanted to throw all season – yet he repeatedly found a way to hit Jordan Matthews. The scrappy qb also had an uncanny knack for connecting on big fourth down throws. Grit and toughness? He played through a torn ACL in the season's final three games. Sadly, we will not get to see him in action in Birmingham as he recovers from surgery. He has left his mark just the same.
Wesley Johnson anchored our offensive line. Facing ferocious SEC defenses week in and week out, our o-line was dependable and tough. Our coaches knew they could count on the front to grind out the key yard when it was needed. Our great fourth down conversion rate rests largely on the shoulders of the line. Johnson broke Vandy's record for consecutive starts this year – in Knoxville he notched his 49th consecutive start. The BBVA Compass Bowl will make 51 consecutive starts. That record should stand for a long, long time.
Newcomers: Andrew Jelks; Patton Robinette.
Andrew Jelks was voted to the all-SEC freshman team. He helped solidify an o-line that came into its own as the season progressed. Somewhat fittingly, he is the first Vandy O-lineman to collect all-SEC freshman honors since Wesley Johnson and only recently made the Athlon Freshman All-American, third team. Patton Robinette directed victories over Georgia and Florida – and then scored the winning, last minute touchdown in Knoxville. Robbinette showed remarkable poise and savvy. While designated the "running quarterback", he completed 58% of his passes. More importantly, his six touchdowns were second most on the team – and accomplished in only 56 carries.
When the season started, Jerron Seymour was third on the depth chart at running back. He climbed to the top early. With two years left, Seymour showed great promise and a nose for the end zone. He cashed in a team leading thirteen touchdowns. Also, Jonathon Krause stepped up dramatically in his senior campaign. Our most sobering statistic for next year is that we lose three of our top four receivers. Our leading returning receiver next year will be a running back, Jerron Seymour.
Most Valuable Player Defense: Kenny Ladler.
We lose another future NFL-er here. Ladler, a first team all-SEC selection, has been a driving force on defense – and leading tackler – for several years. This year he led the squad with 87 tackles, 60 of which were solo. He also posted five interceptions. Always dependable, a sure open-field tackler. He and Javon Marshall held down the fort for several years at the safety position and will be missed.
Honorable Mention: Andre Hal.
Hal was the key to a secondary that was dominant – after early season soft cushions were abandoned. As sobering as our WR dilemma will be next year, our entire starting secondary departs: Ladler, Hal, Javon Marshall and Steven Clarke. These talented and dependable senior defenders helped Vandy place 21st in the country in passing yards allowed per game – despite facing Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray and other gunslingers. We will also need to replace LBs Chase Garnham and Karl Butler – it was not a coincidence that our D solidified upon their return to action from injuries. Senior Walker May closed the year strong too. The hurry-up no-huddle offenses we faced early made stat-accumulation difficult for our D-line. At year's end, we faced four consecutive opponents who did not speed it up – and held them, on average, below fourteen points per game.
Newcomer: Adam Butler.
The defense is loaded with young talent. Many – especially in the secondary – stepped up this year and will need to do it as starters next year. Of all these talented young defenders, Adam Butler stood out. He made game-changing plays against Kentucky and Tennessee. He tallied 25 tackles, 16 solo, six for loss, knocked down passes and blocked kicks. Any league where Butler could not crack the All-Freshman team is loaded with high caliber defensive tackles.
Pleasant Surprise: Darreon Herring.
It was a tough injury year for starting LBs. That put a lot of pressure on the healthy ones. Sophomore Darreon Herring held things together. He was second on the team in tackles with 80. A very solid year – which we desperately needed from him. Caleb Azubike also showed signs of being a dominant defensive end in the future.
Special Teams – Most Valuable Player: Carey Spear.
A dependable kicker is a luxury fans take for granted until they don't have one. We will miss Spear next year. Dependable place-kicking, bone-rattling tackling, and kick-offs that were generally unreturnable. Spear was a perfect 43 of 43 on extra points, and two for two on field goals beyond 50 yards – with a long of 54. We may miss the kick-offs more than anything next year – Spear routinely booted them through the end zone.
Newcomers: Taylor Hudson and Darrius Sims.
Hudson took over the punting duties. Punting was another big question mark coming into the season – and we held our own. Sims showed real flashes of brilliance as a return man. There are a lot of long returns in his future.
This is a great group of veterans – and a promising and talented array of underclassmen. Let's hope they finish the season in style.
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