Smith, Commodores looking for more pop

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- It couldn’t have started any better for Larry Smith at Vanderbilt.

His first career start came in the 16-14 win over Boston College in the 2008 Music City Bowl, which just happened to be the Commodores’ first bowl win in 53 years.

Since that game, there haven’t been a lot of memorable moments for Smith, now a senior, as the Commodores have struggled to find any semblance of offensive firepower.

In 13 of their last 16 SEC games, they’ve been held to 14 points or fewer and finished 110th nationally in total offense each of the last two seasons.

Smith, who’s had each of his past two seasons cut short by injuries, has completed just 47 percent of his passes with 10 touchdown passes and 12 interceptions over the past two seasons.

From an offensive perspective, it’s been hard to watch.

But the last thing first-year Vanderbilt coach James Franklin is going to do is dump all of the Commodores’ offensive woes the last two years on Smith.

And in fairness, there were a lot of times when Smith never even had a chance.

“Larry Smith has played a lot of football here and taken a lot of the blame, and probably a lot of it unwarranted, for the lack of success,” Franklin said. “I was very impressed with him this spring. He has a great body, understands concepts, has natural leadership skills and a strong arm.

“But the reality is that we didn’t have a quarterback competition. Jordan Rodgers is a guy we’re excited about, but he wasn’t healthy this spring.”

So what Franklin wants to do when preseason camp rolls around is make Smith earn the job once Rodgers’ shoulder is healthy enough to compete and once the three freshman quarterbacks arrive on campus.

“Although I was pleased with Larry and impressed with what he did, I still want it to be a competition and want him to have someone to compete with and give those other guys an opportunity to earn the job as well,” Franklin said.

Of course, for any quarterback at Vanderbilt to have success, the Commodores are going to have to find more playmakers. They didn’t scare anybody down the field the last two seasons, making it easy for defenses to load the box.

This spring, Jordan Matthews, a 6-foot-3, 200-pound sophomore receiver, showed signs of being one of those guys who could give the Commodores more big plays, and Franklin was also impressed with sophomore Jonathan Krause and his ability to make plays.

Once Warren Norman returns to full speed from his wrist injury, the Commodores should have a strong stable of running backs. Sophomore Wesley Tate really came on this spring with his blend of size and speed, and senior tight end Austin Monahan should prosper in this system.

The great unknown is the offensive line, which has been a recurring problem, especially in the depth department.

However it shakes out, Smith is confident that the Commodores are already ahead offensively of where they were either of the past two seasons.

For one, he feels like he’s a better player in all facets thanks to the tutelage of quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne and Franklin, who also played quarterback in college and has worked extensively with quarterbacks during his career.

“I’ve gotten better across the board, whether it’s learning how to study film, my footwork or just being a better leader,” Smith said. “There’s a lot more focus this year, and you can see it on the field. We’ve had fewer mental errors, and guys are playing their roles.”

As frustrating as the past two seasons were for Smith, he’s eager to see what this offense can do under the new regime.

He can already tell that the guys around him on offense are playing with more confidence.

“It starts with us. We’ve got to believe,” Smith said. “The last two years, our confidence level was low. I think Coach Franklin has done an excellent job of improving our confidence and having a mindset that it can be done here at Vanderbilt.

“I’m not worrying about the past. I’m focusing on Elon and plan to go out with a bang my last season.”

Franklin said he’s yet to make a final decision on who would call the plays next season. He may call his own plays or turn those duties over to offensive coordinator John Donovan, who came with Franklin from Maryland.

“We’ll wait and feel this whole process out,” Franklin said. “We’ll work through the summer and summer camp and then make a decision that’s in the best interest of our program.”