Kicking it with James Franklin

First-year Vanderbilt coach James Franklin will put his Commodores through their second scrimmage of the spring on Saturday.

From an attitude standpoint, he couldn’t be more pleased and is especially excited about the way the players have responded to the new coaching staff.

I caught up with Franklin this week, and here are some of his thoughts:

What do you like about what you’ve seen so far from your team?

James Franklin: We have some athleticism in the secondary, and having a Chris Marve at mike linebacker really helps and sets the tone for your whole defense. The same thing with some of our guys up on the defensive line. On offense, I’ve been pleased with (senior quarterback) Larry Smith. He has a lot of tools to work with. If you just look at what Larry has, would you recruit him every year? I’d say you would. He’s a big, strong kid with a strong arm. He’s a smart guy with a great attitude and understands concepts. We have some youth at wide receiver, but some guys are coming along and making plays, some guys who contributed a little bit last year. Depth is a concern for us, which is why recruiting is so important. I like the direction we’re going. The kids have completely bought into what we’re doing, and their attitudes have been unbelievable. Our coaching staff is flying around and having a great time with them.

Your staff has an impressive track record when it comes to developing quarterbacks. How valuable is that?

JF:I take a lot of pride in what we’ve been able to do with quarterbacks. We hired a guy named Ricky Rahne (as quarterbacks coach), who coached with me at Kansas State. I think he’s one of the hot, up and coming guys in this profession. He’s a really, really smart guy who played quarterback at Cornell. I spent time in Philadelphia around Donovan McNabb. I spent time in Green Bay with Brett Favre, and in the same year, we drafted Aaron Rodgers. I go to Kansas State, and we recruit a guy by the name of Josh Freeman, who’s a first-round draft choice, and then go to Maryland and recruit and coach a kid by the name of Danny O’Brien, who was ACC Rookie of the Year. I just feel like I’ve been around some pretty good quarterbacks and know what they look like and have studied the traits that have allowed them to be successful. I feel pretty confident that we’re going to be able to make an impact in the careers of the quarterbacks we have here, and we’re going to be able to attract quarterbacks for the future. We have a proven track record of being able to do it.

Jordan Rodgers remains limited while recovering from his shoulder issues, but where is he in the pecking order at quarterback?

JF: He’s been going through all the mental reps, all the footwork reps, all the run game and a limited amount of throwing. He has a lot of good traits. I love coaches’ kids. I love guys who’ve been around football their whole lives. Just the fact that he’s been able to watch his brother’s development and was at the Super Bowl this year is big. He was telling me the other day that he called Aaron and they were talking about plays and a lot of the same terminology that we’re using and they use in Green Bay, we were using when we there together in Green Bay. They’re able to have conversations on the phone and talk the same language. I’ve been pleased with him. We just have to get him 100 percent healthy and ready to go.

When you bring in the three freshmen this summer -- Lafonte Thourogood, Kris Kentera and Josh Grady -- how do you see it shaking out at quarterback?

JF: At the quarterback position, just like the offensive line, it’s hard to play early. Every once in a while, you get one of those special guys who can do it, and I’m not saying one of these guys can’t. The biggest thing is Larry’s experience. He has played in games. He’s doing a great job this spring, and then you’re going to have Jordan here. He’s had all the mental reps. Those two guys will have a real good chance to compete, and then Charlie Goro from an athletic standpoint does some nice things. Those three guys will have a head start on the freshmen coming in, but we also think those freshmen are pretty talented. You never know. Sometimes, you get one of those kids who is special.

It sounds like you made more plays down the field in last Saturday’s scrimmage. Are you optimistic that you will be able to make more of those plays next season and not have to drive the length of the field all the time?

JF: You have to be a really, really good football team to say that you’re going to go 3 yards all the way down the field and be that consistent. You’ve got to create some chunk plays in every aspect of your game – in special teams, on offense and on defense. You have to get some big plays. That’s our focus. I do think we have some guys who can get down the field and break the long runs and catch the long pass or the short pass and make somebody miss. We have some of those guys. We just don’t have enough of them. That’s why this staff is so excited to get on the road and develop some relationships and recruit some of those guys. But we like the guys we have here. We just need more of them. I can tell you that we’re going to be aggressive with the ball on offense and be aggressive with our schemes on defense and special teams.

Have you identified who your leaders will be on this team?

JF:I have a Commodore Council, which is basically all of my seniors, four juniors, three sophomores and two redshirt freshmen. I bring those guys in and talk to them about the team, but our goal is come Elon (in the opener) that we have 105 leaders, a collective mentality with what we’re trying to do and everybody is pulling the rope in the same direction. Everybody wants to be leader by example now, and not to many kids want to be verbal leaders. That’s why having Chris Marve and guys like that helps. Guys have to be willing to speak up and not only lead by example, but do it vocally. Chris Marve has tremendous respect from his teammates and the coaches and also has produced both on and off the field, so he’s probably the guy who stands out the most.

What’s imperative that you guys get done these last few weeks?

JF: You want to install as much as you possibly can so these guys will have a foundation for what we want to build on in the summer and camp next season. But on the same hand, you don’t want to give them so much that they’re thinking so much that they can’t go out and play fast and we can’t build some confidence. The reality is that it comes back to blocking and tackling, the fundamentals of football. We want to push them as much as we can, get some confidence, feel good about some things and then build on it from there and get more creative come August. That’s what I’m looking for these last few weeks, these kids leaving spring ball and feeling good about their experience and excited about building on it for summer camp.