Where have all the seniors gone?

You'll have to forgive Nick Getter if he's feeling a bit grandfatherly these days-- he's one of only four seniors (not counting walk-ons) on the entire 2003 Commodore roster. When the Commodores open the season Aug. 30 vs. Ole Miss, he's projected to be the only senior in the starting lineup. What in the world ever happened to Vanderbilt's senior class?

Sometimes tight end Nick Getter has to rub his eyes a bit when he glances around the recently renovated Vanderbilt football locker room. The fifth-year senior from Round Rock, Texas is conditioned to locking eyes with his old buddies from the recruiting class of 1999-- M. J. Garrett. Hunter Hillenmeyer. Dan Stricker. Jonathan Shaub.

Getter rubbed shoulders with those guys for four years. Paradoxically, he's still around, but most of his old buddies have moved on. In their place are a bunch of young bucks-- with unfamiliar names like Darnell, Merritt, Antron and Marlon.

You'll have to forgive Getter if he's feeling a bit grandfatherly these days-- he's one of only four seniors (not counting walk-ons) on the entire 2003 Commodore roster. When the Commodores open the season Aug. 30 vs. Ole Miss, he's projected to be the only senior in the starting lineup. (The other seniors-- Benji Walker, Libnir Telusca, Zeke Brandon-- will be in backup roles.)

Getter is the only starter who's been around long enough to tell his teammates about the last time the Commodores defeated the Rebels-- the heartstopping overtime win in Oxford in 1999 that springboarded Vandy to a rare five-win season.

One of the oldest adages in the vernacular of Coachspeak goes something like this: "A college football team can go only as far as its senior leadership is willing to carry it."

It's not uncommon for SEC teams to carry 15-20 seniors on their rosters, and most usually have at least 8-10 seniors among their top 22 starters. What in the world has happened to Vanderbilt's senior class? What sinister forces have combined to leave head coach Bobby Johnson with such a dearth of seniors on his second Commodore team?

I ran that question by Getter recently. The answer gets a little complicated.

"With the new coaching staff coming in, a lot of guys in my class played their freshman year, so they didn't have a chance to get to a fifth year," said Getter. (Garrett, Hillenmeyer, Ryan Cuffee and Mike Martin are four who fall into that category.)

"Some other guys left [before their eligibility was up] because of the changes. They just decided to move on with their lives." (Shaub, Markessus House and Brett Beard fit that description.) "I'm sure they're going to do great.

"But it's been kind of different just looking around the locker room lately. I'm still really close with a lot of guys that have moved on now. We formed a really tight-knit group."

Getter's class, the class of 1999, was also hard-hit by injuries. Among the recruits from the class who suffered career-ending injuries were fullback Chris Mitacek, tight end Wes Gunter, offensive lineman Jason Tant, and most recently offensive lineman Jordan Pettit.

But what about the recruiting class of 2000, whose members would now be in their fourth year on campus? Woody Widenhofer was able to redshirt most of that class-- only fullback Zeke Brandon has played all four years. The rest are fourth-year juniors, most of whom should return next season (a fact which bodes well, by the way-- the Commodores could have as many as 14 fifth-year seniors in 2004).

But in the meantime, Coach Johnson will field a mostly senior-less team in 2003. For Getter, the lone senior starter, it's different-- and a little spooky.

"It's interesting how the young guys are now," Getter continues. "I remember sitting around here thinking, 'Wow, just the other day I was that young guy, and now I'm the old guy.' It's something I've had to adjust to, and learn to reach out more to the younger guys."

The burden of leadership is not one that comes easily to Getter. He doesn't see himself as a vocal leader-- but neither does he view the shortage of seniors as something that will hold the team back this year.

"Our coaches tell us, and we talk about it as a team, that anybody can be a leader," he said. "It doesn't matter what position you play, or whether you're starting or not. It's all about how you carry yourself, on and off the field.

"We want to have a whole team full of leaders. That's our goal-- to have everybody be accountable for themselves. I think we're moving in the right direction in that regard. We have two sophomores and a junior as our captains-- that shows that we have great leadership from the younger guys."

Getter completed the requirements for his Economics degree last May, and like many of his teammates, faced a huge decision about whether to return for his senior season. His acceptance into the M.B.A. program at Owen Graduate School of Business helped cement his decision-- it offered him the unique opportunity to obtain a free year of graduate school on a football scholarship.

But there was more to his decision than that, he says. A fifth year would also offer him a chance to finish some unfinished business on the football field.

"I wouldn't have come back if I didn't know there was going to be a chance for this team to be successful," said Getter, with an obvious deep conviction. "That's really why I came back. I feel every chance we step on the field, we have a chance to beat someone. If I didn't feel that way, I wouldn't be here-- I mean, I've already got my degree!

"I'm really happy with the progress the team has made, especially in this fall camp right now. I think there's nothing but up from here."

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