NASHVILLE, Tenn. — There is a big difference between thinking you can and knowing you can.
Vanderbilt football knows it can win nine games like last season, most for the team in nearly a hundred years, including the Music City Bowl victory over North Carolina State.
But the mantra coming from this year’s Commodores is this team hasn’t accomplished anything yet, although there are notions of continued ascent for the upstart program under third-year coach James Franklin. Vanderbilt returns 16 starters and some of the top talent in the country, offering promise for the program’s first back-to-back winning seasons since 1974-75.
“Having success in (the last two years) and being able to take some positive strides, there is no doubt,” Franklin said Saturday following the team’s open scrimmage at Vanderbilt Stadium. “We talk all the time about last year. It helps with experience and confidence and things like that.
“Those nine wins are not going to do anything against Ole Miss (in the season opener on Aug. 29) for us. We have to re-create ourselves every single year, start from the ground up and build it the way we need to.”
Still, there is plenty of reason for optimism. This time last year, the Commodores had seven offensive linemen on scholarship. This year, it’s 15, including four returning starters.
The receiving tandem of senior Jordan Matthews and junior Chris Boyd is one of the best in the country, and the secondary returns three starters that include All-SEC senior cornerback Andre Hal. Plus, the graduation of quarterback Jordan Rodgers should be negated by senior Austin Carta-Samuels, who had 26 starts at Wyoming before transferring to Vanderbilt in 2011.
But the three-headed running attack of senior Wesley Tate and sophomores Brian Kimbrow and Jerron Seymour really had Franklin’s juices flowing on Saturday. That is comforting considering the loss to graduation of All-SEC back Zac Stacy, who rushed for more than 2,300 yards the last two seasons.
“Everybody is talking about losing Zac Stacy,” Franklin said. “And don’t get me wrong, I would love to have Zac Stacy for another year. But it’s becoming obvious to me that we have three backs that I feel really good about in (Tate, Kimbrow, Seymour) and behind an improved offensive line.
“That’s one of the things that is jumping out at me right away. What’s really nice is they all kind of really complement each other.”
Like last season, expect the Commodores to utilize the Wildcat offensive formation where the ball is snapped directly to a running back. When you have three backs who bring different styles — Tate is more of a traditional back, Kimbrow is a shifty and speedy waterbug and Seymour provides a low and powering center of gravity — it is enticing to get them the ball as much as possible in specific situations.
“Last year, the Wildcat was very good for us,” Franklin said. “Everybody knows it’s coming, but you’ve got numbers. The thing that is nice is that you have some guys who are able to still throw the ball at that position as well to keep them honest.
“We’re excited about the Wildcat and being able to grow that package in a lot of different ways.”
All eyes are also on Carta-Samuels to lead an offense that’s solid up front and possessing of various weapons, especially Matthews. He set the team’s single-season receiving record last year with 1,323 yards and leads virtually every SEC category among active receivers.
“We really believe in the process,” Matthews said of playing for Franklin. “But we don’t like to use words like ‘success’ too much because it keeps you living in the past. We are going to keep moving forward.”
And of his relationship with Carta-Samuels, let’s just say Matthews feels confident the ball will be headed his way.
“You can definitely not only see his experience, but the natural leadership that he has,” Matthews said of the senior QB. “You could tell that he just didn’t wake up one day and have it. He has worked toward that.
“He has been showing that ever since he got here. I am really impressed. We are just building our friendship and keep building our chemistry out here on the field.”
Carta-Samuels feels confident he can be the guy to lead the offense, and team in general, this year.
“I feel that way right now,” he said Saturday after the nearly three-hour workout. “I feel really confident. I have put a lot of work into this. I have started 26 college football games, and I’m ready to make it 39. It’s been fun. I feel I am in good communication with my coaches and the players.”
Vanderbilt will conclude spring practice on Saturday, April 13 with the annual Black & White spring game. In the meantime, the Commodores still have six more spring practices to maximize the period.
“We are staying healthy,” Franklin said of spring practice thus far. “We are flying around. A lot of guys are getting reps in terms of guys who redshirted last year or didn’t get a whole lot of opportunities to compete. But, most importantly, we’re getting a lot of really good full-speed work in here.”