Nigel Bowden was ranked among Rivals.com's top 10 inside linebackers in the 2013 signing class and bypassed scholarship offers from Georgia Tech, Miami and Tennessee to sign with Vanderbilt.
So desired was Bowden that then-Commodores coach James Franklin spoke at the Macon (Ga.) Central football banquet, at which Bowden was honored repeatedly. Bowden was just days away from signing when his recruiting saga took a bizarre twist.
In pledging at the banquet to outwork more recognized Southeastern Conference counterparts such as Alabama's Nick Saban, Franklin referred to the Crimson Tide coach as "Nicky Satan."
"I didn't even notice it at first, but then they put it all over the news," Bowden said at this year's SEC Media Days. "That opened everybody's eyes, but it showed that not all SEC coaches are afraid of another SEC coach. They give them respect, but they're not afraid, and that's how we've got to look at Florida and Georgia.
* Last season: 3-9 (0-8 SEC)
* Opener: Sept. 3 vs. Western Kentucky (8 p.m. on SEC Network)
* Fun fact: Despite last season’s 3-9 disappointment, Vanderbilt’s four-year record of 27-24 is its best since the late 1950s.
"We'll give them respect, but we're also going to look at them like any other program."
Vanderbilt opened eyes under Franklin, reaching three straight bowls and posting consecutive 9-4 seasons in 2012 and '13. Franklin then left for tradition-rich Penn State, and successor Derek Mason stumbled to a 3-9 debut last year with wins over only UMass, Charleston Southern and Old Dominion.
Mason was talking a year ago about the time being right for an SEC East championship, but he has scaled back on such dialogue this time around.
"This is the best conference in college football, and the challenges are many," Mason said. "You have to manage where you are and learn what your identity is, and we struggled to find our identity. What we've tried to do in the last eighth months is to right the wrong, and our fan base should be excited about where we're going, because this group is talented."
Bowden redshirted in Franklin's last season before proving to be a nice gift for Mason. The 6-foot-1, 240-pounder racked up a team-high 78 tackles last season, including two tackles for loss and a sack.
The Commodores allowed 40 or more points in half of their league games but closed with more of a fight, losing their finale to Tennessee 24-17. Mason called the defensive signals against the Volunteers and will do so again this season.
"Last year is in the rearview mirror for us, and we feel very confident about this year and especially our defense," Bowden said. "We like having Coach Mason on our side of the ball, and he likes having the linebackers come downhill more and playing faster. I think he has taken away some of the hesitation we had last year, and our defensive linemen were really attacking it throughout spring.
"We're going to be a whole new defense. He simplified a lot for us, and I think we'll have a much better outcome."
Vanderbilt returns nine defensive starters and has eight back on offense, but stability at quarterback is a huge question. Johnny McCrary and Wade Freebeck return with experience, but they combined to throw 10 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 2014.
Patton Robinnette, the quarterback favorite coming out of spring, gave up the sport due to concussion concerns.
"Wade Freebeck used to be so laid-back, and now I've never seen someone talk so much," Bowden said. "Johnny McCrary has great energy and a great drive throughout practice. He will throw a deep ball and then run past everyone else so he can celebrate with the receivers.
"I'm also looking forward to seeing Kyle Shurmur, who's just a freshman but has really high confidence so far."
McCrary, top returning tailback Ralph Webb and and top returning receiver C.J. Duncan all are redshirt sophomores along with Bowden. It's a tight-knit group, Bowden said, and a collection that has moved on from the Franklin era and eager to make Mason a winner.
"People mention James Franklin all the time, and I give him respect, because he's a great coach," Bowden said. "I also feel like we've moved on, because Coach Mason is a great coach and a defensive-minded coach. We feel very comfortable with Coach Mason, and we call him the Godfather of the defense."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.
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