Checking in on Vanderbilt

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- I've been on Vanderbilt's campus for much of the day and spent some time with the Commodores' coaches and players.

There's no question a new energy surrounds this program, and there's certainly not a feeling of contentment just because Vanderbilt went to a bowl game last season in James Franklin's first year on the job.

"We were 6-7. We had a losing record," Vanderbilt senior cornerback Trey Wilson said. "We expect a lot more out of ourselves than that, and we're going back to work to make sure we get a lot more out of next season. Nobody around here is satisfied."

Franklin is bringing in the highest-rated signing class in school history. Most of those guys won't be on campus until the summer, but Franklin envisions even more competition for positions than last season.

And he means everywhere.

"We still don't have the depth we need, but we're going to have competition," Franklin said. "I want everybody in the program to feel like there's no favoritism and no politics. Even for the guys who played last year, and they have a leg up, but you're going to have to earn your job every day. That's important, and getting these freshmen in here and allowing them to have an opportunity to compete and play will help us."

One of the hottest battles could be at quarterback. Jordan Rodgers stepped in at midseason a year ago and provided a huge boost to the offense, but Austyn Carta-Samuels is eligible after transferring from Wyoming and is pushing hard this spring.

"The sky's the limit for us with the competitive nature that coach Franklin has created," said Carta-Samuels, whose grandfather, Tom, played baseball at Vanderbilt. "That's why I came here, and you know you're going to get an opportunity to play if you're the best player."

Carta-Samuels had 2,094 yards in total offense in 2010 and started 11 games that season for Wyoming. He said he visited Vanderbilt out of high school and that there's no comparison in the caliber of players here now as compared to 2008 when he was visiting.

Two of the Commodores' priorities this spring, according to Franklin, are throwing the ball more accurately than they did last season on offense and not giving up as many big plays on defense. They completed just 51.7 percent of their passes, and defensive coordinator Bob Shoop said they gave up 46 big plays (a running play of at least 15 yards or passing play of at least 25 yards).

Shoop said the Commodores' goal is no more than two big plays per game.

"Where we fell short was we gave up too many big plays," Shoop said. "Five percent of the snaps against us accounted for one-third of the total offense."

Replacing middle linebacker Chris Marve and his leadership will also be a chore. Shoop said a key to the Commodores' success last season (they finished 18th nationally in total defense) was the way Marve bought into Shoop and his defense.

Junior Chase Garnham is moving into Marve's middle linebacker spot, but it will take several players to fill the leadership void created by Marve's departure. Defensive end Walker May, defensive tackle Rob Lohr, safety Javon Marshall and Wilson are all ready to take that step.

"We're light years ahead of where we were last year," Shoop said. "Our first group out there practicing right now ... I like the way they're practicing. Our second group, those guys are a lot of redshirt guys and scout-team guys. They're figuring it out."

Freshman linebacker Darreon Herring is an early enrollee and going through spring practice. Shoop thinks he has an excellent chance to be in the rotation next season. The same goes for freshman linebacker Jake Sealand, who will be on campus this summer.