- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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Schedule: Vanderbilt begins spring practice Friday at 5:15 p.m. ET and concludes with the Black and Gold Spring Game on April 14, in Vanderbilt Stadium. Coach James Franklin has decided to open all 14 of Vanderbilt's spring practices to fans.
What's new: Franklin added two new assistants during the offseason. George Barlow comes over from New Mexico to coach the Commodores' defensive backs and serve as the defensive recruiting coordinator, while Josh Gattis left Western Kentucky to coach Vandy's wide receivers and will serve as the offensive recruiting coordinator. Vanderbilt will also see more of transfer quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels, who came from Wyoming last season, after being the Mountain West's Freshman of the Year in 2009. After sitting out 2011, Carta-Samuels will compete with Jordan Rodgers for the starting quarterback spot. Joining the battle is early enrollee Patton Robinette.
On the mend: Running back Warren Norman sat out all of the 2011 season with a knee injury and will be limited for most of the spring. Offensive linemen Ryan Seymour and Chase White, safety Javon Marshall, fullback Marc Panu, linebacker Tristan Strong, and running back Jerron Seymour won't go through contact this spring. Offensive lineman Mylon Brown, who was suspended due to violation of team rules and wide receiver Brady Brown, who decided not to return to the team, are not on the spring roster.
Questions: Vanderbilt must replace four key starters and leaders from last year's defense. Gone are linebacker Chris Marve, cornerback Casey Hayward, defensive end Tim Fugger and safety Sean Richardson. Marve, Richardson and Hayward were Vandy's top three tacklers last year, while Fugger led the Commodores with eight sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. Hayward is also tied for first in school history with 15 career interceptions. Vandy will also enter spring with a thin offensive line, with only nine healthy bodies to work with up front. With Seymour and White rehabing and Brown suspended, the Commodores likely won't have two full lines to work with. Also, can the Commodores continue to play and practice with the new confidence Franklin instilled in last year's team? That will be key for Vandy because the Commodores will likely receive more attention this spring, so keeping that edge will go a long way.
On the move: Outside linebacker Chase Garnham is expected to move inside and play at Marve's spot at middle linebacker. Josh Grady is moving from quarterback to wide receiver, while Kris Kentera is also moving from the quarterback spot and will work at tight end/H-back this spring.
Key battle: Rodgers had his ups and downs last year as the Commodores' quarterback, but his downs stuck out in Vandy's bowl loss to Cincinnati. He completed 4-of-14 passes and threw an interception in the first half. Now, Rodgers will have a fight on his hands this spring with Carta-Samuels and Robinette. Carta-Samuels proved he has the talent to push Rodgers after some success at Wyoming, while Robinette will certainly benefit from enrolling early. Vanderbilt returns most of its offensive production from last season, including running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, but the quarterback play has to be more consistent in 2012. Rodgers made the offense go for most of the year, but his struggles held Vandy back at times.
Don't forget about: Vandy has one of the most productive running backs in the SEC from a year ago lining up in its backfield once again. Stacy was third in the league in rushing last season (1,193) and was second with 14 rushing touchdowns. He was Vandy's most consistent offensive player last year and really helped add big-play ability when the Commdores had the ball. Stacy broke Vandy's single-season rushing record in the final game of the regular season when he rushed for 184 yards against Wake Forest. He will enter the season eighth on the school's list in career rushing yards (2,002) and trails career leader Frank Mordica by 630 yards.
Breaking out: The Commodores have a few players who could turn some heads this spring. Sophomore defensive tackle Barron Dixon has a big lower body and is built like your typical SEC defensive tackle. He didn't play much last year, but with holes up front, he'll have a chance to grab a spot this spring. Also, redshirt freshman Derek King has a chance to really compete in Vanderbilt's secondary. He sat out last season, but with Hayward and Richardson gone, he has a shot to earn some playing time. Keep an eye on offensive guard Jake Bernstein because Vandy needs a lot of help on the offensive line and the redshirt freshman will be called upon often this spring.
All eyes on: There will be a lot of attention paid to the quarterback spot this spring. Rodgers is the favorite heading into spring, but he'll really have to show improvement in his composure and his decision-making in order to leave spring as the starter. He's extremely talented and athletic, but he has to get the mental side down in order to develop heading into the 2012 season. The good thing is that Vanderbilt returns enough weapons to help in that department. Also, Norman should get more attention paid his way as well. He was one of Vandy's best offensive and special teams weapons when he was healthy, so making sure he makes improvements in his speed this spring will be key. Adding him back to the offense this fall will be big for the Commodores.
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