As one of most prestigious institutions of higher learning outside of the Ivy League, Vanderbilt University undoubtedly fosters a love of literature among its alumni.
But with all due respect to Steinbeck, Hemingway and Faulkner, being a Vanderbilt Commodore football fan must lend itself to a keen appreciation of the work of Langston Hughes as rooting on the Commodores in the rugged SEC is often a proposition that requires “Laughing to Keep From Crying”.
Luckily for Vandy fans, (no-longer interim) head coach Robbie Caldwell should have them in stitches in Nashville throughout the Fall.
Jeff's Snarky Comment From the Casual Fans' Peanut Gallery: What was so bad at an SEC school with zero football expectations that the head coach quits 5 weeks before camp?
With a career arc that resembles that of Oakland Raider head coach Tom Cable and a demeanor and delivery that reminds one of Larry The Cable Guy (except that Caldwell is actually very funny) Caldwell was a breath of fresh air last month at SEC Media Days.
But, now that he won over the media and the Vandy administration, Caldwell’ s task is to finish what his predecessor, the notably non-cursing Bobby Johnson started by breathing life into a program that is suffocated annually by the college football elite. That won’t be easy, because the ‘Dores and their fans know obscenity when they see it on the scoreboard. And, they have seen it a lot.
But, if the oft-lopsided scoreboard is going tilt toward the Vanderbilt, it is one, four-letter, safe-for-the-office word that is going to make the difference: Work. In his own homespun way, Caldwell said he is no stranger to a hard day’s work.
“All I know how to do is work,” Caldwell said. “I’ve been a worker all my life. I grew up in it. My wife said, You can’t talk about anything but football.
I can. I can talk about pouring concrete, farming, being a pipefitter, all those things, working on a turkey farm. But nobody wants to hear that. Those are the things that I did prior to getting into football. That’s the God’s truth. So I’m extremely excited about what they’ve presented to me and the efforts they put behind me. I’m just in place and ready to go.”
Some might consider inheriting a 2-win team on short notice a nightmare. Caldwell is not one of those people.
“Here I am, I go from lining the field to I’m head coach in the SEC,” Caldwell said. ”I’m telling you, what a thrill. It’s a dream. I can still walk in places and nobody knows me. Last night I was opening the door for people and they gave me a tip. I thought, hey, that’s great. How can you get it any better than that?”
The Vanderbilt Offense
The Vandy offense may employ a three-headed monster at quarterback this season after suffering through two abysmal passing seasons following the departure of Commodore record-setter and current NFL Quarterback Jay Cutler.
The candidates–Larry Smith (6-2, 220) , JUCO transfer Jordan Rogers (6-2,213) (brother of Green Bay Packer Aaron Rogers) and Jared Funk (6-2, 210) all bring something to the table, but one of them needs to step up and ring the bell consistently in the passing game to keep the chains moving.
Smith has shown glimpses of his potential before, but, after passing for less than 1,200 yards last season, will have to show improvement early, or will lose snaps to the other quarterbacks.
If any of them give last year’s SEC freshman of the year–running back Warren Norman (5-10, 192) –some help, the Vanderbilt offense will be improved. All Norman did last year is surpass former Georgia standout and SEC great Herschel Walker’s record for most yards gained by a freshman with 1,941 yards (783 rushing, 109 receiving and a whopping 1,050 on kickoff returns).
While it may seem like Norman does it all, he is not big enough to carry the ball 25 times per game in the SEC. Fellow sophomore Zack Stacy (5-9, 205) is more of a bruiser, and he capably picked up the slack last year, gaining 478 yard on the ground. Together, Norman and Stacy give the Commodores running back tandem that may be short on last names, but does not lack for talent and productivity.
When you struggle as mightily as Vandy did a year ago in the passing game, no wide receivers stand out, but if there was one that did for the ‘Dores, it was another sophomore–John Cole (5-11, 182).
The offensive line will have to replace four starters, and as we have noted in this space before, that is a recipe for disaster. The projected starters are Tackles Ryan Seymour (6-4, 305) and Caleb Welchans, (6-5, 300), junior guard Kyle Fischer, (6-6, 310) and two seniors, Guard Chris Aaron (6-3, 295) and Center Joey Bailey (6-4, 295).
The Vanderbilt Defense
A stellar unit that led Vandy to a bowl game in 2008, the Vandy defense took a major step backward in 2009. The same cannot be said for linebacker 2nd-team All SEC linebacker Chris Marve, who logged a whopping 121 tackles. Unfortunately, Marve made many of those tackles as opposing teams were running the ball down Vandy’s throat.
Vandy needs some quality depth to emerge on the defense line, and lighten the load on Marve in the middle. Defensive Tackle T.J. Greenstone (6-3 285) looks the part and was fairly productive a year ago as a backup with 38 stops. Tim Fugger (6-4, 255) and Terrial Brandon (6-4, 245) will man the ends and look to meet at the opposing quarterback.
Jamie Graham (6-0, 196) will take over for Myron Lewis, who was so stellar in the SEC that Tampa Bay made him its 3rd-round draft pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. Junior Casey Hayward is a returning starter at the other cornerback position, and 6-2, 218 lb junior Sean Richardson returns at safety and looks to build on a solid 2008 campaign. As a group, the secondary looks to be one of the best units on the team.
But, if the defensive line does not produce some impact players, potential stars like Marve, Graham and Richardson will again be relegated to mop-up duty on the back end of gashing run play after gashing run play.
The Vanderbilt Special Teams
Norman popped three kickoff returns for touchdowns last year and is as good as anyone in the country in that role. Stacy is an asset as a punt returner. As most freshmen do, placekicker Ryan Fowler struggled early last year. But, he finished strong, making 12 of his last 13 field goal attempts, and should have a positive carryover. Richard Kent is slated to handle the punting, and should garner plenty of TV time unless Vandy’s offense can overcome its kryptonite–the forward pass.
The Vanderbilt Schedule
Thank God for Eastern Michigan. After earning just two wins last year, Vandy should be able to count on a win against EMU. The rest of the schedule is for the birds.
What Will Happen
Caldwell will energize Vandy, who will put up a fight, early, but fade after being outmanned on a weekly basis.
Returning Starters: 7
Key Players: QB Larry Smith, RB Warren Norman, WR John Cole
Needs to Emerge: QB Jordan Rogers
Returning Starters: 4
Key Players: Chris Marve, Jamie Graham, T.J. Greenstone
Needs to Emerge: Graham
Key Games: Eastern Michigan, Tennessee, Wake Forest
Vandy Schedule (1-11)
Sept. 4 Northwestern L
Sept. 11 LSU L
Sept. 18 at Ole Miss L
Sept. 25 OPEN DATE
Oct. 2 at Connecticut L
Oct. 9 Eastern Michigan W
Oct. 16 at Georgia L
Oct. 23 South Carolina L
Oct. 30 at Arkansas L
Nov. 6 Florida L
Nov. 13 at Kentucky L
Nov. 20 Tennessee L
Nov. 27 Wake Forest L