NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Vanderbilt football coach James Franklin stated recently that it would be nice to talk about football and football only.
Instead, the third-year Commodores coach has dealt with a highly-publicized alleged rape case where four players were indicted on various charges and dismissed from the team. Another player, standout junior receiver Chris Boyd, was exonerated as an accessory after the fact, but was booted from the team anyway.
Then came the recent firing of coach Lane Kiffin at Southern Cal, and pundits around the country immediately placed Franklin as a possible candidate — a notion neither USC nor the coach has dismissed.
Oh yeah, the Commodores have played six football games, too, winning three non-conference games and losing all three Southeastern Conference encounters. That includes a heartbreaking season opener at home to Ole Miss, getting outmanned at South Carolina, and then getting blown out last Saturday at home by Missouri.
With the bar raised at the highest level in recent memory for the Commodores on the heels of last year’s nine-win season, the most in nearly a century, and first-ever consecutive bowl berths, Vanderbilt was poised to take that next step.
It still can happen, but the Commodores face a rough stretch with No. 7 Georgia visiting Oct. 19, followed by road trips to No. 9 Texas A&M on Oct. 26 and No. 17 Florida on Nov. 9. They then close with three very winnable games, including hosting Kentucky on Nov. 16, traveling to in-state rival Tennessee on No. 23, and closing at home against Wake Forest on Nov. 30.
Heading into a bye weekend and before they go forward into the second half of the season, here is a mid-season report card position-by-position on the Commodores.
Senior Austyn Carta-Samuels had been waiting in the wings for his one season to run the offense. He brought with him two years of starting experience at Wyoming before transferring, but there was no way to know how that would translate to playing at a higher level.
Well, it has. In consecutive weeks, Carta-Samuels set the program’s single-game passing record with 334 yards in the win over UAB, followed by 338 in the loss to Missouri. The 29 completions and 41 attempts versus Missouri were also team single-game records.
For the season, he has completed 66.1 percent of his passes (117-of-176) for 1,561 yards with 10 touchdowns and six interceptions. He’s fifth in the SEC at 260.2 passing yards per game and also has five rushing touchdowns.
Above all, Carta-Samuels has commanded the attention of not only his fellow offensive mates, but the entire team as well, as his natural leadership abilities have taken hold. He is truly one of the team’s leaders, both by action and word.
The Commodores went into the season with a three-pronged ground attack that featured backs with differing styles. Senior Wesley Tate is the prototypical back, sophomore Jerron Seymour the most explosive, and sophomore Brian Kimbrow the waterbug-type who scoots here and there.
While the carries are about even between Seymour (59 for 354 yards and six touchdowns) and Tate (62-277-4), it is Seymour who has rushed to the lead of the pack. Against UAB, he gained a career-high 107 yards on only 12 carries. Tate is dependable out of the backfield with 12 catches, including a career-high six against Missouri.
Kimbrow’s playing time and production (23-134-1) diminished to the point where he didn’t play in the win at UMass on Sept. 21, which led to his spewing of displeasure via Twitter and raising the specter of a transfer. That wasn’t met well by Franklin, and Kimbrow only got three carries against UAB and one against Missouri after that.
Not only is senior Jordan Matthews one of the best receivers in the SEC, but the country as well. Currently, he leads the league with 47 catches and 709 total receiving yards, the latter of which is third in the nation. His 118.2 yards per game is second in the league.
In the Missouri game, Matthews became the program’s record holder in career receptions (22) and career yardage (2,996). His next touchdown catch will be his 23rd, also a school career record. And the NFL regards him as a top prospect, too, consistently ranking among the top five receivers for the draft next spring.
The Commodores got a blow when Boyd, a junior, was dismissed from the team. He is every bit as big and athletic as Matthews. Not only was he to help take pressure off Matthews this season after having 50 catches for 774 yards and five TDs last season, but he was heir apparent as the team’s lead receiver next season.
Stepping up big has been senior Jonathan Krause, who has 24 catches for 430 yards and two touchdowns. His yards per catch of 17.9 yards leads the team and is nearly three more yards per catch than Matthews.
The bell cow is senior left tackle Wesley Johnson, who has started 44 straight games and been flagged only once for holding during that stretch. The last three-plus seasons, he has been on the field for all but two of Vanderbilt’s offensive touchdowns.
With four of five starters returning, the group was considered a team strength for 2013. Offensive production hasn’t been an issue for the Commodores, who rank fifth in the SEC at 33.7 points per game.
But they do rank last in the league at both 153 rushing yards per game and 4.3 yards per attempt, which can be attributed to a variety of reasons. Ultimately, though, those numbers don’t shine the best light on the offensive front.
The three SEC opponents faced thus far has Vanderbilt ranked last in league games in scoring defense (41.7 points per game) and total defense (530.3 yards per game) and next-to-last in rushing defense (223.7).
Although he has yet to start, sophomore end Caleb Azibuke, a local product, has been the most productive, topping linemates with 23 tackles, including a team-high 6-and-a-half tackles for lost yardage. Junior end Kyle Woestman has 22 tackles and leads the team with two-and-a-half sacks.
The group has been overwhelmed in league games and played little better than average against non-league opponents. While depth seems to always be a concern, this group has underachieved thus far.
Granted, they’re just sophomores, but the trio of starting linebackers — Jake Sealand in the middle and Darreon Herring and Larry Franklin on the outside — has not performed at the desired level the last three games.
Then again, the Commodores were hit hard when senior middle linebacker Chase Garnham suffered a leg injury in the season opener and has yet to return. The all-league caliber player led the teams in sacks and tackles for loss last season and was to be one of the defensive leaders. His return doesn’t appear imminent.
Compounding the loss of Garnham was the team also being without senior outside linebacker Karl Butler, who missed the last three games with an undisclosed injury. That has left Vanderbilt turning to unproven players for linebacking depth.
The Commodores feature one of the league’s best secondaries, led by senior cornerback Andre Hal — a NFL draft prospect. He leads the team with eight passes defensed.
But it is the senior tandem of free safety Kenny Ladler and strong safety Javon Marshall who have stepped up as sure tacklers, topping the team with 49 and 40 tackles, respectively. Against both South Carolina and Missouri, Ladler had career-highs of 14 tackles, pushing his career total to 249 stops to be the team’s active career leader.
Senior Carey Spear had the best season ever by a Commodores kicker in 2012 with 20 field goals and a success rate of 83.3 percent, best among SEC kickers. Thus far, he’s made 4-of-5 field goals, including a career long of 54 yards against South Carolina. He also had a 50-yarder against UAB.
Sophomore Taylor Hudson has stepped in nicely at punter to replace standout Richard Kent. If he maintains the current average of 44.7 yards per punt, it will be the fifth-best season in program history. Eight of 23 punts have been downed inside the 20-yard line.
The return game has been underwhelming. Krause is averaging only 3.8 yards per punt return after going for 11.2 yards per return last season. True freshman Darrius Sims is averaging 22.9 yards on kickoff returns with a long of 42 yards.
On what Franklin has already achieved in reversing a losing culture of Commodores football, it would be hard-pressed to give him anything but a top grade. Players, administration and fans alike have bought into his mantra of accepting nothing but a strict adherence to a plan that has produced winning thus far.
But there was the lackluster effort in the 24-7 win at UMass and the total domination at the hands of Missouri in that 51-28 whipping. And there are those who want to place the rape case at Franklin’s feet, considering all four charged were his recruits.
The team probably should be 4-2 after blowing a late lead in the loss to Ole Miss, but 3-3 isn’t so bad when considered against the backdrop of Vanderbilt’s past. As for the future, the current freshman class was ranked 19th-best in the country by Scout.com after National Signing Day, while the incoming class that already has 18 commitments is ranked 29th nationally.