Vanderbilt is looking to extend its dazzling ascent in football, with Friday's start to spring practice providing more cause for excitement but also a need to replace productive performers.
Third-year coach James Franklin will have 16 starters back from the first Commodores team to win nine games since 1915. Leading the way will be receiver Jordan Matthews, who had 94 catches for 1,323 yards last season, cornerback Andre Hal, who tallied 48 tackles and two interceptions, and kicker Carey Spear, who made 20 of 24 field-goal attempts.
"For the first time, everybody in the program this spring understands the expectations," Franklin said at a news conference earlier this week. "They understand how we do things, how practices are run, how we meet and how we conduct ourselves on and off the field. I'm excited about the freshmen who have come in and the freshmen who are coming this summer, because for the first time I feel comfortable enough to tell those guys that they can look at the veterans and model their behavior after the veterans."
The Commodores will conclude spring drills April 13 with the Black & Gold game at Vanderbilt Stadium, which Franklin hopes will have a record crowd and even sell out.
Jordan Rodgers threw for 2,539 yards last season and Zac Stacy rushed for 1,141 on an offense that averaged 380 yards and 30 points per game. The two are now hopeful of NFL careers, and their absences leave quarterback and tailback as two notable question marks this spring.
Vying at quarterback are redshirt senior Austyn Carta-Samuels, a transfer from Wyoming who made one start last year for the Commodores, redshirt sophomore Josh Grady, redshirt freshman Patton Robinette and early enrollee Johnny McCrary. Grady is joining the mix after spending last season at receiver, where he had seven catches for 89 yards.
"I think it's going to be an interesting battle," Franklin said. "Austyn Carta-Samuels obviously has the edge. He has played in a game here. He has started in a game here, and he's been a starter in major college football. Experience counts, especially at that position."
Carta-Samuels completed 13 of 20 passes for 195 yards and a touchdown in a 58-0 rout of Presbyterian last September.
Sophomore Brian Kimbrow and redshirt senior Wesley Tate combined for 789 yards last year in backing up Stacy, and those two will be joined in the tailback competition by redshirt sophomores Jerron Seymour and Derek King. Seymour rushed for 268 yards as a freshman in 2011 before redshirting last year, while King was a reserve cornerback last season.
Franklin is hoping a deeper offensive line can help negate the loss of Stacy in terms of the running game. The Commodores had seven healthy offensive lineman last spring.
"This year we have 15 and a two-deep we feel really good about," Franklin said.
Among the linemen on the two-deep is former Baylor School standout Barrett Gouger, a redshirt freshman who will compete for a starting guard spot.
The biggest concern defensively is at tackle, where Rob Lohr, Colt Nichter and Jared Morse competed last season. Lohr and Nichter were seniors, and Morse is not enrolled this spring after violating a team rule.
Franklin said Morse, who had 24 tackles and nine tackles for loss last season, could return to the program but that the Commodores have to move on as if he won't.
To address the shortage at defensive tackle, Franklin has moved redshirt freshmen Adam Butler and Torey Agee. Butler worked on the offensive line last season, while Agee moves in from defensive end.