NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Vanderbilt’s annual Black & Gold Spring Game here Saturday was an opportunity for the Commodores to exhibit a talented stable of playmakers on both sides of the ball.
The quality of depth third-year coach James Franklin has assembled continues to encourage Commodores fans that this recent run of success has a strong chance of continuing. Vanderbilt is coming off its first nine-win season in nearly a century and first-ever run of back-to-back bowl berths, including the Music City Bowl victory over North Carolina State.
In a game where the projected starters wore black and the backups for now wore gold, it took a late drive by the Black team, and eventual game-winning field goal by kicker Carey Spear on the game’s final play, to pull out a 17-15 victory over a stubborn Gold team of starter wannabes.
“We stayed healthy, which is the most important thing,” Franklin said after the game at Vanderbilt Stadium. “We got a lot of reps and a lot of experience for a lot of guys. This summer is going to be very important.
“We have done some nice things this spring. But from now until the opening game, we still have a lot of work to do.”
Stealing the show Saturday was true freshman quarterback Johnny McCrary, who had his teammates rallying around him after his father, former NFL player Gregory McCrary, died of a heart attack. The funeral will be held Tuesday in Atlanta.
“All his family came up here today,” Franklin said of McCrary, who is part of the 2013 recruiting class but graduated early from Decatur (Ga.) Cedar Grove High School and entered Vanderbilt for the spring semester.
“This is why you come to Vanderbilt,” Franklin added, “because you are going to be supported and have people who care about you. He’s much more than just a football player.”
Playing with a heavy heart, McCrary completed 6 of 13 passes for 108 yards and a touchdown for the Gold team. His grasp of the offense was solid for a player whose previous peers are still in high school.
“I just wanted to go out there and play football,” said McCrary, a first-team Georgia all-state prep player last season. “This is what I do. I play football.”
McCrary’s play on the field and handling the adversity off of it impressed senior quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels.
“I have so much respect for Johnny McCrary,” he said of his younger teammate. “No one understands what that kid obviously went through and to lose both his parents (his mother died when he was 9). That’s a very tough deal.”
1. Running back Zac Stacy, the team’s all-time leading rusher with 3,145 yards and 30 touchdowns, had become quite the luxury for Vandy. But with Stacy now departed to the NFL, the Commodores are looking at a trio of backs — senior Wesley Tate and sophomores Brian Kimbrow and Jerron Seymour — to provide a three-pronged rushing attack.
Tate is more of the traditional back, rushing for 376 yards last season and eight touchdowns. Seymour redshirted last season with an injury, but is a shifty back that can go the distance. And Kimbrow is more of the power runner of the set, having rushed for 413 yards last year as a true freshman.
For the Black team, Tate had 60 yards on nine carries, while Kimbrow had 39 yards on five carries. Seymour gained 14 yards on six carries for the Gold team.
“Over the spring, we definitely progressed and got better,” Tate said of the run game’s evolution during spring practice. “We’ll see how that combo (with Kimbrow on the Black team) progresses along with Jerron in the fall.”
2. While it is apparent Carta-Samuels will take over the starting quarterback reigns from graduated Jordan Rodgers, the backup QB was not determined out of spring practice, according to Franklin. Looking to most likely secure the backup slot behind Carta-Samuels on the depth chart are sophomore Josh Grady, redshirt freshman Patton Robinette and McCrary.
“If you are not on the first team, it definitely kind of gets to you,” said Robinette, who completed 11 of 15 passes for 101 yards and a touchdown for the Gold team and appears to be the leading candidate for the No. 2 slot. “… I couldn’t tell you much about the depth chart. All I know is I am coming out every day and trying to do the best I can to get better. I am happy with how my spring has gone.”
Carta-Samuels completed 14 of 20 passes for 196 yards and one touchdown, a 13-yard scoring strike to standout senior standout receiver Jordan Matthews. Grady was 3-for-6 for 33 yards for the Black team.
3. If these are indeed the best of times for Vanderbilt football, the growing support for the program becomes more evident. With the weather Saturday afternoon picture perfect, the attendance announced at 14,000 at Vanderbilt Stadium for the spring game was the best it has been in decades. Saturday’s attendance nearly equaled the combined total that attended the last two spring games during the first two years of Franklin’s tenure with 8,500 last year and 6,000 coming in 2011.
“It’s getting bigger and bigger every year,” Franklin said of spring game attendance.
“Seeing all the fans out for the game definitely excited me and gives everybody a little bit of confidence and hope,” Stacy said.
Franklin not only had a prediction for the nationally televised season opener at home versus Ole Miss on Aug. 29, but for all of the seven home games this season.
“We will be sold out of season tickets by then,” Franklin said of the opener. “There is no doubt in my mind that game will be sold out. We will sell out every single game next year.”
While NFL scouts will hit the path to Vanderbilt this season to watch all-conference receiver Matthews, they will also be taking in the talented receiving running mate Chris Boyd. At an athletic 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds, the product of Roswell (Ga.) High School had 50 catches for 774 yards and five touchdowns last season.
Couple Boyd’s production with the 1,323 receiving yards of Matthews last season, and the Commodores feature the most potent receiving tandem in program history and the top returning duo in the SEC.
Boyd’s big-play capability showed Saturday for the Black team when a 44-yard reception on a fourth-and-25 pass from Carta-Samuels kept the game-winning drive alive. He finished with three catches for 68 yards.
“It was either make that catch or lose the game,” said Boyd, who had five touchdown catches last season in the last six games. “Our motto put up in the wide receiver’s room is that at the end of the day, make the play. So, I just knew there was an opportunity to make a big play.”
Carta-Samuels has bided his time for the chance to be a collegiate starting quarterback again. After all, he had 21 starts as a freshman and sophomore at Wyoming before transferring to Vanderbilt in 2011. Last season, he played sparingly for the Commodores behind starter Jordan Rodgers, but did go 14-for-24 for 208 yards and a touchdown against Presbyterian in his only start.
“I was quarterback of the Black offense,” Carta-Samuels said of Saturday’s spring game, “and it didn’t start as well as I would have liked for it. But we’ve had a pretty good spring. We’re going to keep moving forward and working hard.”
Carta-Samuels has plenty of talented receiving weapons, including Matthews, Boyd and senior Jonathan Krause, who had three catches for 59 yards Saturday. He is happy with the rapport he has developed with his receivers in particular and the offense in general.
“I feel very comfortable with where I am,” said Carta-Samuels, the former Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year who passed for 3,655 yards in 21 starts during the 2009-10 seasons at Wyoming. “I felt I had a really good spring. The work is not going to stop. There is a huge chip on my shoulder.”