SEC: Tim Fugger

Vanderbilt spring wrap

May, 15, 2012
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2011 record: 6-7
2011 conference record: 2-6
Returning starters: Offense: 9; defense: 7; kicker/punter: 3

Top returners:
WR Chris Boyd, WR Jordan Matthews, QB Jordan Rodgers, RB Zac Stacy, OG Ryan Seymour, C Wesley Johnson, LB Archibald Barnes, Chase Garnham, DT Rob Lohr, CB Trey Wilson

Key losses:
TE Brandon Barden, OT Kyle Fischer, DE Tim Fugger, LB Chris Marve, CB Casey Hayward, S Sean Richardson

2011 statistical leaders (*returners)

Rushing: Zac Stacy* (1,193 yards)
Passing: Jordan Rodgers* (1,524 yards)
Receiving: Jordan Matthews* (778 yards)
Tackles: Chris Marve (91)
Sacks: Tim Fugger (8)
Interceptions: Casey Hayward (7)

Spring answers

1. Finding more leaders: Vanderbilt coach James Franklin wanted to leave spring with more leaders than started with. By his accounts, a few veterans stepped up with guys like Marve, Fugger, Hayward and Fischer gone. Franklin said that if the Commodores were going to build off of last season's success, some veterans had to step up and take hold of the team. Guys like Jordan Rodgers, Chase Garnham, Walker May, Trey Wilson and Zac Stacy really expanded their roles as leaders and will be leaned on even more this fall.

2. Marve's replacement: Finding someone to take over for Marve in the locker room was one thing, but filling his position on the field is another. Exiting the spring, Franklin thinks he found the perfect player for the job in Garnham. He moved from the outside to the middle and really excelled at Marve's old position. Garnham was one of the Vanderbilt's most consistent defensive players this spring and the coaches expect to perform this fall.

3. More playmakers: The Commodores return much of their offense this season, but it sounds like the coaches found a few more players. People know about Stacy and receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, but a few other players caught the coaches' eyes like redshirt freshmen Josh Grady and Kris Kentera, who were former quarterbacks. Grady showed his versatility by playing all over the field at receiver, running back and as a wildcat quarterback. It looks like Kentera earned some playing time at H-back this fall, helping to take pressure off Matthews and Boyd.

Fall questions

1. Offensive line: Spring practices have not addressed any of the issues the Commodores have on the offensive line. Ryan Seymour and Chase White began spring by rehabbing injuries, leaving Vandy with just nine healthy bodies up front. As spring went on, Franklin said there were times when his team sometimes had just seven linemen to work with. It was bad enough that Vandy rarely went through practices with a full offensive line taking reps. Six true freshmen linemen will enroll at Vandy this fall, but there's no question this unit is the biggest worry for the Commodores.

2. Quarterback consistency: While Rogers made improvements to his game, he still showed the inconsistency that frustrated Franklin last season. There's no question he has the athletic ability to be a solid starter in this league, but he sometimes fails to stand tall in the pocket and deliver solid throws when things collapse around him. That kind of play really hurt Vandy's offense last season. He was pushed by 2009 Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year Austyn Carta-Samuels during the spring and the battle is expected to continue through fall camp.

3. Warren Norman's health: After missing all of the 2011 season with a knee injury, Norman returned to the practice field this spring. Though he was non-contact, he showed some improvement in his mobility. It's still unclear how healthy Norman will be and if really complement Stacy in the running game. Rising sophomore Jerron Seymour is the one other returning running back that registered carries last season.
Everybody talks about the best value picks come NFL draft time.

In other words, who were the best football players to go later in the draft?

Now that everybody else has had a say, I’ll weigh in with regard to SEC players.

Below are my value selections. These guys either went in the last three rounds of the draft or went undrafted, and I’m betting that all five will be contributors in the NFL. They’re listed alphabetically:

Josh Chapman, DT, Alabama: The Indianapolis Colts took Chapman with the first pick of the fifth round, and all you really need to know about Chapman is that he played most of last season with a torn ACL. He waited until after the season to have surgery. That decision hurt his draft stock, but helped his team and was a big reason the Crimson Tide won their second national championship in the last three years. Had Chapman not been recovering from surgery at draft time, he would have gone a lot higher. He should be cleared for practice in July and will have a great chance to win the starting nose guard job this fall.

Tim Fugger, DE, Vanderbilt: The Colts took Fugger with the seventh pick of the seventh round, and he projects as an outside linebacker in the Colts’ 3-4 scheme. The thing you love about Fugger is how smart, tough and intense he is. Plus, he ran a 4.6 40-yard dash in his workout at 250 pounds. He has a knack for making big plays, as evidenced by his eight sacks and three forced fumbles last season, and he doesn’t take plays off. There are more than a few former Vanderbilt defenders earning a living in the NFL right now. Fugger has everything it takes to join that fraternity.

Chris Rainey, RB, Florida: The Pittsburgh Steelers took Rainey with the 24th pick in the fifth round. Just from a special teams perspective alone, Rainey figures to be a huge asset. He has game-changing speed and will certainly be a threat in the return game, but what a lot of people forget is that he’s also Florida’s all-time leader with six blocked kicks. There’s just no substitute for the kind of speed Rainey possesses, and he’s proven than he can both run and catch the football. The Steelers will find a niche for him, and Rainey will put his speed to use in a number of different ways.

Danny Trevathan, LB, Kentucky: The Denver Broncos took Trevathan with the 18th pick in the sixth round. There were some who didn’t think Trevathan would be drafted at all, but a savvy football personnel guy is always going to take a chance on a player as productive as Trevathan was during his career at Kentucky. He racked up 287 total tackles over his last two seasons and was one of the surest tacklers in the SEC. He doesn’t have ideal size (6-0, 237), and he’s not very fast (4.82 in the 40). But turn on the tape and watch him make play after play against some of the best competition in the land. The guy’s a football player, and he’ll get it done on defense and on special teams at the next level.

William Vlachos, C, Alabama: Vlachos was not drafted and agreed to a free-agent deal with the Tennessee Titans. Let’s face it. If Vlachos were about three inches taller, he would have gone as high as any center in the draft. But he’s barely 6-0, and we all know the NFL’s hang-up with measurables. It’s a given that Vlachos isn’t going to get any taller, but he’s a natural when it comes to playing center. He was the engine for that Alabama offensive line last season and has started for three years. He’s as smart as he is tough and always wins the leverage battle because he plays so low. Go ask Trent Richardson and Mark Ingram what they think of Vlachos, who went up against everybody from Nick Fairley to Michael Brockers to Fletcher Cox during his career.

Lunchtime links

March, 22, 2012
3/22/12
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The tournament is kicking back up today, but enjoy these links before you go ripping what's left of your bracket up.

Opening spring camp: Vanderbilt

March, 16, 2012
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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.

SEC postseason position rankings: DL

February, 7, 2012
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We turn our attention to defense today, specifically the top defensive lines in the SEC during the 2011 season.

Year in and year out, strong defensive line play is what separates the SEC from other leagues, so there’s no shame in finishing in the bottom half of these rankings.

You can see our preseason rankings here.

Now onto our postseason rankings:

[+] EnlargeBarkevious Mingo
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireEnd Barkevious Mingo, 49, and tackle Michael Brockers, 90, led a stout LSU defensive line.
1. LSU: The Tigers overwhelmed teams this season up front with numbers, power and speed. They had the luxury of running fresh guys in and out of the game and not dropping off one bit. Michael Brockers was one of the top interior linemen in the league, while Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo combined for 28.5 tackles for loss, including 17 sacks, off the edge. Finding a better collection of defensive linemen anywhere in college football would be difficult.

2. Alabama: Even Nick Saban said before the season that Alabama didn’t have that dominant difference-maker up front this season in the mold of a Marcell Darius, but it didn’t matter. The Crimson Tide’s play up front was still dominant. Nose guard Josh Chapman courageously played through a torn ACL and plugged the middle, and nobody got any push against the Alabama front when it came to running the ball. The Tide led the country in rushing defense with opponents managing just 2.4 yards per carry.

3. South Carolina: The Gamecocks’ specialty was rushing the passer, and they ended the season with six sacks against Nebraska in the bowl game. Senior defensive end Melvin Ingram was a consensus All-American with 10 sacks, but he had plenty of good players around him. Freshman defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is next in line for All-America honors. He tied for the lead in league games with five forced fumbles.

4. Georgia: Not only were the Bulldogs one of the best defensive lines in the league, but they were also one of the most improved. Junior college newcomer John Jenkins made a huge difference at nose guard, and junior end Abry Jones had a breakout season with seven tackles for loss and 20 quarterback hurries. The Bulldogs were a lot bigger up front this season, too, which comes in handy when you’re playing a 3-4.

5. Florida: The Gators could have used some more depth in their defensive line, but they held up surprisingly well this season despite getting very little help from their offense. Sophomore Dominique Easley emerged as one of the more active defensive tackles in the league before tearing his ACL against Florida State, and Sharrif Floyd played both inside and outside for the Gators. With just about everybody back, Florida should have one of the top lines in the SEC next season.

6. Vanderbilt: A few eyebrows might be raised to see the Commodores ranked in the top half of the league when it comes to defensive line play, but look at the numbers. In SEC games, Vanderbilt held opponents to an average of 111 rushing yards per game, which was fourth in the league. Senior defensive end Tim Fugger might have been the most underrated player in the league with 13.5 tackles for loss, including eight sacks. Junior tackle Rob Lohr wasn’t too far behind with 11.5 tackles for loss, including five sacks.

7. Mississippi State: It wasn’t the best start to the season for Mississippi State’s defense, but the Bulldogs closed with a flurry thanks in large part to the way they played up front the last half of the season. Tackle Fletcher Cox led the charge down the stretch and led all SEC interior linemen in league games with 12.5 tackles for loss. Cox’s running mate inside, Josh Boyd, also did his share of damage with eight tackles for loss.

8. Arkansas: Coming into the 2011 season, the Hogs looked like they had one of the deepest defensive lines in the SEC. But star defensive end Jake Bequette was plagued by a nasty hamstring injury early in the season, and his sidekick on the other end, Tenarius Wright, broke his arm in the fourth game against Alabama. Bequette still responded with seven sacks in seven SEC games, and Wright also returned late in the season. The Hogs’ weakness was stopping the run. It was a problem all season long.

9. Auburn: The Tigers had some decent sack numbers, but that’s where it ends for them up front defensively. Sophomore defensive end Corey Lemonier was second in the SEC in league games with 8.5 sacks, but the Tigers were carved apart up front more times than not. They allowed more than 200 rushing yards per game to SEC foes, and had a terrible time getting off the field on third down. Auburn was painfully young up front defensively this season, but everybody returns in 2012.

10. Tennessee: The Vols had trouble getting to the passer this season, and they also weren’t especially good at stopping the run. That’s a combination that’s difficult to overcome for any defense. They finished with just 10 sacks in SEC games, which was 11th in the league, and they also gave up an average of 178.8 rushing yards per game to league foes. The Vols were hurting at tackle, which is why Malik Jackson played inside. He led the team with 11 tackles for loss.

11. Kentucky: As a whole, Kentucky improved defensively under first-year coordinator Rick Minter, particularly when it came to forcing turnovers. The Wildcats collected 16 in eight league games. They still need to get better up front after allowing an average of 203.8 rushing yards per game to SEC opponents. They also managed just 13 sacks in eight SEC contests. This is a big offseason for guys like Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph.

12. Ole Miss: One of the biggest blows for the Rebels was senior defensive end Kentrell Lockett not being able to make it all the way back from his knee injury. Ole Miss was left without any finishers up front and also couldn’t stop the run. In SEC contests, the Rebels gave up an average of 256.5 rushing yards per game, which ranked them last in the league and was 50 yards more than the 11th place team.
Now that you've seen the recruiting needs for the SEC Western Division teams, it's time to check what teams in the East needed to focus on when it came to recruiting for the 2012 class:

FLORIDA

Offensive line: There's no getting around how much Florida's offensive line struggled in 2011. Florida doesn't lose a lot from its line, but the Gators need more talent. There are a lot of questions surrounding this position and getting qualities bodies is a must.

Running back: Florida loses seniors Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps, and will enter the fall with unproven players in Mike Gillislee and Mack Brown. As Florida continues to move closer to a more traditional/pro-style offense, the Gators also need to add size to the position.

Wide receiver: Again, this is a position in which the Gators need to improve in the talent category. Florida lost just one senior from last year's squad, but unproven players lurk. What Florida needs to get in this class is a true playmaker at receiver. There is hope that Quinton Dunbar, Andre Debose and Frankie Hammond can step up, but some solid competition won't hurt.

GEORGIA

Offensive line: Georgia loses three starters in Cordy Glenn, Ben Jones and Justin Anderson. The Bulldogs would like to add a few more big bodies up front in this class to help with all that unproven depth.

Linebacker: In Todd Grantham's 3-4 defense, linebackers are extremely important. The Bulldogs will likely lose a couple bodies at outside linebacker next year, including star Jarvis Jones, and would like to add a couple of true playmakers at that position in this class.

Wide receiver: Come 2013, Georgia will have taken some hits at its wide receiver depth. There is young talent in Malcolm Mitchell, Chris Conley and Michael Bennett, but veterans like Tavarres King, Marlon Brown and Rantavious Wooten will be gone. Adding a couple standouts at wide receiver in this class would be nice.

KENTUCKY

Offensive playmakers: Whether it comes at quarterback, wide receiver, running back or tight end, the Wildcats need to find players who can make plays when they get the ball in their hands. Kentucky's offense was hard to watch all season because there was no one who could consistently move the ball.

Offensive line: Kentucky loses three starters -- Chandler Burden, Stuart Hines and Billy Joe Murphy -- from its offensive line and needs to load up here in this class. There is a handful of young players at each offensive line position, but the Wildcats need to think about adding more for the future.

Defensive back: Veterans are leaving the Wildcats' secondary, so it's time to stock up. Winston Guy, Taiedo Smith, Randall Burden and Anthony Mosley will all be gone, meaning the Wildcats are in need of adding some depth to both the cornerback and safety positions.

MISSOURI

Running back: Leading rusher Henry Josey suffered a severe knee injury toward the end of the 2011 season and the Tigers have some veterans jam packed at the top of the depth chart at the position. Getting help to add to future rosters would really help this offense as it moves to the SEC.

Defensive line: The Tigers are losing three starters along the defensive line and 10 players from 2011 will be gone by the end of next season. There are some youngsters there, but it's time to getting into restocking mode along the defensive line. Also, this is where games are won and lost in the SEC. Finding more athleticism here is crucial.

Offensive line: Like the defensive line, Missouri will lose three starters here. There are some bodies to fill in for now, but you can never have too many offensive linemen and now that the Tigers are headed to the SEC, getting some bigger, more athletic linemen will be key to survival in this jungle.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Defensive line: The Gamecocks have gotten a ton of production from here lately, but South Carolina will lose two starters in Melvin Ingram and Travian Robertson. South Carolina might want to add to defensive end the most, with Ingram leaving and Devin Taylor getting ready to depart in a year.

Linebacker: Over the next two years, the Gamecocks will lose some quality players at linebacker and even the spur position. A handful of veterans occupy the depth chart at linebacker, so that means South Carolina needs to add a few quality bodies for the future.

Defensive back: South Carolina's depth in its defensive backfield could be considered thin. The Gamecocks are down two starters at cornerback and will lose solid players in D.J. Swearinger and DeVonte Holloman in 2013.

TENNESSEE

Running back: The Vols never figured out how to run the ball last year and will now turn to a group of unproven running backs. Marlin Lane has the talent to excel, but he needs to be more consistent. Finding a couple talented backs in this class would help this position tremendously.

Defensive tackle: The Vols need some help inside, and now that they are moving to the 3-4, getting quality nose guards is a must for Tennessee. Adding some girth inside will be very important in order to improving this position.

Defensive back: Tennessee will say goodbye to quite a bit of their defensive backs in the next couple of years, so getting a head start on adding to players to both safety and corner would be a plus.

VANDERBILT

Offensive line: The Commodores return the bulk of their offensive line next year, but after that, Vanderbilt will be pretty thin and very young up front. Adding four or five bodies to the offensive line would go a long way for Vanderbilt.

Linebacker: Vanderbilt loses one starter, in Chris Marve, here for next season, but the year after will see a lot of turnover at the position, with four rising seniors on the roster.

Defensive end: Two starters — Tim Fugger and T.J. Greenstone — are gone and Vanderbilt will lose a handful more after the 2012 season. Getting some help at this position is another must for coach James Franklin.

Liberty Bowl: Keys for Vanderbilt

December, 30, 2011
12/30/11
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A look at the three keys to the game for Vanderbilt in its AutoZone Liberty Bowl matchup with Cincinnati on Saturday:

1. Pressure the passer: Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros hasn’t played in a while. This will be his first game since Nov. 12 when he broke his ankle against West Virginia. The Commodores will look to bring pressure from different places, keep him guessing and not allow him to get into any kind of rhythm throwing the ball.

2. Win the turnover battle: Vanderbilt finished the regular season plus-2 in turnover ratio, and the Commodores forced 27 turnovers, which was fourth in the SEC. But their last four losses were by a total of 19 points, and one of those was an overtime loss. In those four losses, Vanderbilt turned the ball over 11 times and forced just six turnovers. They need to reverse that trend against the Bearcats.

3. Ride Zac Stacy: In addition to pressuring Collaros, the other way Vanderbilt can clamp down on Cincinnati’s offense is by keeping the Bearcats’ offense off the field. That’s where Stacy comes in. He rushed for a school-record 1,136 yards this season and averaged 6.2 yards per carry. The Commodores would love to get him 20-plus carries in this game and keep those sticks moving.

Liberty Bowl: Cincinnati vs. Vanderbilt

December, 30, 2011
12/30/11
1:00
PM ET
James Franklin has Vanderbilt in a bowl game in his first season as coach, and the Commodores (6-6) face co-Big East champion Cincinnati (9-3) on Saturday at 3:30 p.m. in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl in Memphis. Here’s a quick preview:

WHO TO WATCH: Vanderbilt junior quarterback Jordan Rodgers. The catalyst in Vanderbilt’s offensive turnaround this season, Rodgers entered the starting lineup in the seventh game against Army, and the Commodores averaged 32.2 points over their last six contests. Rodgers, the younger brother of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, is a threat both passing and running. He also helped the Commodores generate more big plays in their offense. He passed for nine touchdowns and ran for four more during his six starts and developed a nice chemistry with sophomore receiver Jordan Matthews, who emerged as the Commodores' deep threat and averaged 19.5 yards per catch.

WHAT TO WATCH: Vanderbilt’s pass rush. The Commodores didn’t have a lot of big names in their defensive line entering the season, but they played big and finished fifth in the SEC with 24 sacks. Senior defensive end Tim Fugger led the way with 6.5 sacks, and getting pressure on the quarterback will be critical for the Commodores in this game. Cincinnati quarterback Zach Collaros is scheduled to return after breaking his ankle back in November, and Vanderbilt needs to set the tone early and keep him guessing. When Collaros is healthy, he’s also a threat to take off and run. He had eight rushing touchdowns this season.

WHY TO WATCH: The Commodores are trying to make history. It’s already the first time in school history that a senior class has gone to two bowl games. But a win would mark only the third bowl victory in Vanderbilt history and give Franklin a winning season in his first year on the job. Cincinnati is trying to keep from losing its third straight bowl game.

PREDICTION: Vanderbilt 28, Cincinnati 24. The Commodores have made enough offensive improvement to score with the Bearcats if this game turns into a shootout early and are capable of hitting big plays for touchdowns. But it's on defense where the Commodores will win it with their propensity to take the ball away and make key stops.

Season report card: Vanderbilt

December, 23, 2011
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The regular-season grades for the Vanderbilt Commodores are pretty spiffy. They’re headed to the AutoZone Liberty Bowl to face Cincinnati on Dec. 31.

OFFENSE: B-

When you consider that the offensive grade for the Commodores each of the past two seasons was a resounding F, the fact that they check in this season with a B- is a testament to how much they improved on offense. That improvement was most glaring in the offensive line, which paved the way for Zac Stacy to rush for a school-record 1,136 yards. The Commodores averaged 26.9 points per game, a full 10 points more than they averaged a year ago. Jordan Rodgers’ emergence at quarterback helped bring the big play back to the Vanderbilt offense. Sophomore receiver Jordan Matthews averaged 19.5 yards per catch, while redshirt freshman receiver Chris Boyd caught seven touchdown passes. After being held without a touchdown in back-to-back games against South Carolina and Alabama, Vanderbilt averaged 31.6 points in its final seven games and scoring at least 21 points in all seven.

DEFENSE: B

The Commodores had several veterans returning on defense and played at a high level on that side of the ball all season. Early on when the offense was trying to find its identity, the defense carried this team. Senior leaders Chris Marve, Tim Fugger, Sean Richardson and Casey Hayward all had big seasons, and it’s a defense that specialized in taking the ball away. The Commodores forced 27 turnovers, tied for fourth in the SEC, and returned four of their 17 interceptions for touchdowns. The Commodores ranked 19th nationally in total defense, allowing an average of 324.6 yards per game, and were 27th in scoring defense, giving up an average of 20.8 points per game. Vanderbilt has had some good defenses over the years, but this one ranks right up there with any of them.

SPECIAL TEAMS: C+

The Commodores made some big plays on special teams. They gave themselves a chance to beat Georgia with the late blocked punt, and Andre Hal returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown earlier in that game. But they also made just 7 of 13 field-goal attempts, missing two in the 27-21 overtime loss to Tennessee, and had a costly running-into-the-kicker penalty go against them in that loss to the Vols, too. They were fourth in the league in both net punting and kickoff coverage. Richard Kent averaged 42.5 yards per punt.

COACHING: B

Some might look at this grade and think it’s a bit high for a team that went 6-6 in the regular season. But how many times have the Commodores won six games in the regular season, and how many times have they played in a bowl game? In his first season, James Franklin came in and completely changed the culture at Vanderbilt. He also brought an edge to the program that should serve it well for years to come. It wasn’t just Franklin, either. His staff is excellent. Look at the job offensive coordinator John Donovan did with a unit that ranked 112th nationally in scoring offense last season. The same goes for offensive line coach Herb Hand, who was the only holdover from the previous staff. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop is one of the brightest defensive minds out there. It’s a staff that wasn’t shy about trying new things, either, and they obviously pressed all the right buttons with this team – only the fifth in school history to play in a bowl game.

Podcast: Week 12 in the SEC

November, 17, 2011
11/17/11
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ESPN.com SEC bloggers Chris Low and Edward Aschoff preview the upcoming weekend in the conference.

Hogs' Johnson voted most underrated

November, 16, 2011
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We asked the fans Tuesday in our SportsNation poll to tell us who in the SEC has been the most underrated player this season.

With nearly 11,000 votes cast, the clear winner is Arkansas running back/kickoff returner Dennis Johnson, who's been one of the league's best stories with the way he's recovered from injuries and been a force for the Hogs this season.

Johnson received 37 percent of the vote, and Georgia safety Bacarri Rambo was second with 28 percent of the vote. South Carolina's Antonio Allen was third with 19 percent.

I continue to be amazed at how little love Kentucky linebacker Danny Trevathan receives. He's on his way to leading the SEC in tackles for the second straight season and was dead last among the five candidates listed with 7 percent of the vote.

That tells me that he truly is underrated.

The same goes for Vanderbilt defensive end Tim Fugger, who's had an All-SEC type season -- and outside of the Vanderbilt program -- has done so with very little fanfare. He received just 9 percent of the vote.

There were some other good suggestions, too, and the reality is that there are a lot of players in this league who are underrated.

Some of the others mentioned most frequently were Arkansas linebacker Jerry Franklin, Alabama running back Eddie Lacy, Alabama receiver Marquis Maze and Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks.

They weren't the only ones, either.

How about Georgia cornerback Brandon Boykin, LSU safety Eric Reid, LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo, Alabama cornerback DeQuan Menzie, Florida safety Matt Elam, Vanderbilt running back Zac Stacy, Arkansas safety Tramain Thomas and LSU guard/center T-Bob Hebert?

Poll: The SEC's most underrated player

November, 15, 2011
11/15/11
2:45
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Before we know it, the 2011 All-SEC and All-America teams will be coming out.

And like always, there will be some very deserving players in this league that get the shaft.

Our aim at the SEC blog is to make sure outstanding seasons don't go unnoticed.

So we're asking you to tell us in our SportsNation poll who has been the league's most underrated player.

We've come up with five candidates, and yes, there could easily be 10 or 12 more on this list. But the five we picked have all flown under the radar to some degree, but all five have put together All-SEC-caliber seasons.

Going in alphabetical order, where would South Carolina's defense be this season without some of the big plays spur linebacker Antonio Allen has made? He has 7.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

Vanderbilt's veteran defense has been a big reason the Commodores are one win away from going to a bowl game. Senior defensive end Tim Fugger has been an excellent leader and is one of those guys who never takes a play off. He has 12.5 tackles for loss, which is tied for third best in the league.

As Dennis Johnson has gotten healthier, Arkansas' offense has gotten more explosive. He's second in the league in all-purpose yards, averaging 149.1 yards per game, and is also averaging 6.6 yards per carry.

When you check out Georgia's gaudy defensive numbers, one of the key cogs in that defense has been junior safety Bacarri Rambo. He leads the SEC with seven interceptions and is tied for the league lead with 14 passes defended.

Kentucky senior linebacker Danny Trevathan is making a bid to lead the SEC in total tackles for the second straight season. He had 144 last season and 118 this season. This league is loaded with great linebackers, but Trevathan is as productive as any of them. How he didn't make the list of 10 finalists for the Butkus Award is anybody's guess.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 11

November, 13, 2011
11/13/11
10:28
AM ET
We’re down to two weeks remaining in the regular season.

Georgia can clinch the Eastern Division championship this coming weekend with a win at home over Kentucky. LSU can wrap up the Western Division championship by winning at Ole Miss and then coming back home and taking care of Arkansas on Nov. 25.

Here’s a look at what we learned in the SEC in Week 11:

1. Path to a rematch is clearer: Alabama could still use a little more help, but two of the things the Crimson Tide needed to happen happened on Saturday. Boise State and Stanford both lost. Meanwhile, Alabama slugged its way to a 24-7 victory over Mississippi State and should check in at No. 3 or No. 4 later Sunday in the newest BCS standings, meaning a rematch with LSU remains very possible. The Crimson Tide were No. 3 last week. What they need now, outside of winning these last two games decisively over Georgia Southern and Auburn, is for Oklahoma State to lose. The unbeaten Cowboys play at Iowa State this Friday and then have an extra week to prepare for Oklahoma at home on Dec. 3. We’ve seen enough of the Crimson Tide this season to know what they are offensively. They’re not going to look pretty, but they’re physical and wear teams down in the second half with the running game. Kicking field goals remains an issue, which is never ideal in a close game, but that defense is as nasty as it gets and continues to play at a championship level.

2. Arkansas not out of it: The scenario that would blow everything out of the water in the SEC is Arkansas winning its next two games, including the regular-season finale at LSU on Nov. 25. The Hogs are certainly capable. They hammered Tennessee 49-7 on Saturday and have scored 93 points in their last two games. The running game is picking up with Dennis Johnson, and senior receivers Jarius Wright and Joe Adams are making big plays every time they step onto the field. This is a team that can score with anybody. The Hogs should also creep up in the newest BCS standings, probably to No. 6. So they’re in position. The key for them is going to be getting into the SEC championship game and winning, because it’s going to be difficult for them to move high enough in the polls if they’re not the SEC champion. For that to happen, Arkansas has to beat LSU and then hope the Tigers don’t fall behind Alabama in the BCS standings that come out on Nov. 27. If all three teams have one loss, they’re all going to be within five spots of each other, and the way the SEC tiebreaker reads in that scenario is that head-to-head competition between the two highest teams in the BCS standings will determine the division champion. Arkansas lost to Alabama in the regular season, which is why the Hogs need the Crimson Tide to be third.

3. Georgia’s Murray separating himself: Not only is Georgia playing its best football at the best time possible, but sophomore quarterback Aaron Murray is showing everybody why he entered the season as the SEC’s premier quarterback. Murray threw four more touchdown passes Saturday in Georgia’s 45-7 beatdown of Auburn, the Bulldogs’ eighth straight win. He has nine touchdown passes in his last two games and 27 for the season, which is the new school record. Murray’s like a jump shooter right now in basketball, and the rim looks like a crater on the moon. He can’t miss, and he’s spreading the ball around, too. All four of his touchdown passes Saturday went to different players, as Georgia built a 35-7 halftime lead. It was sweet revenge for Murray, who was battered last season by Auburn’s defense and speared in the back by former Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley in a game that turned dirty.

4. Vanderbilt best team in the state? As Vanderbilt senior defensive end Tim Fugger said Saturday after the Commodores’ 38-8 rout of Kentucky, “We’d kill to beat Tennessee, but that’s not going to change our mindset.” The Commodores moved to within one game of becoming bowl eligible with their demolition of the Wildcats, and nothing would be sweeter for them than to get that sixth victory in Knoxville over the reeling Vols this coming Saturday. First-year Vanderbilt coach James Franklin has already gone a long way toward changing the culture of the program. A win over Tennessee would be another huge step, especially since Franklin has secured commitments from three of the top 10 prospects in the state, including offensive lineman Andrew Jelks, whose parents have been Tennessee season-ticket holders for years. It’s been that kind of season for the Vols, who’ve suffered through a glut of injuries and are off to an 0-6 start in the SEC for the first time ever. Their 49-7 loss to Arkansas on Saturday was their second worst beating in the modern era. It’s already been a bad ride for them, but it becomes a full-fledged wreck if they lose at home to Vanderbilt.

5. Mediocrity at the bottom: With two weeks left in the regular season, the bottom half of the SEC looks as mediocre to bad as it has in a long time. Six of the teams already have five losses overall, and there’s still a decent chance that we may end the regular season with six of the 12 teams finishing .500 or worse. Four of those teams are in the East. Kentucky and Tennessee already have six losses, while Florida and Vanderbilt have five apiece. It’s not a given that the SEC will be able to fill all of its bowl tie-ins this season, either, especially with the top two teams almost certainly heading to BCS bowls. Not counting the Allstate BCS National Championship Game, the SEC has nine bowl tie-ins.
Today we look at the big uglies that cause all the mayhem in the trenches. The SEC consistently spits out nasty defensive linemen and this year has more of an athletic feel.

Here's how the teams stacked up:

1. South Carolina: The Gamecocks return a defensive line that would make any offensive line shutter. Plus, incoming freshman Jadeveon Clowney comes in as the top high school player in the country and could be one of the best ends in the league this fall. Devin Taylor leads the group at end and was second on the team with 7.5 sacks as a sophomore. Helping on the outside is Melvin Ingram, who plays inside on passing downs, and led South Carolina with nine sacks a year ago. Senior Travian Robertson, who came off injury to get four sacks last year, is solid in the middle as well.

[+] EnlargeDevin Taylor
Dale Zanine/US PresswireDevin Taylor made a habit of harassing quarterbacks last season.
2. Arkansas: The Razorbacks might have the best pass-rushing group Arkansas has seen in a while. Things revolve around defensive end Jake Bequette, who was one of the more unheralded players in the league last year, despite having seven sacks. On the other side of the line is Tenarius Wright, who will make up the second part of a formidable outside duo in Fayetteville with his speed and athleticism. In the middle, there are plenty of options. Byran Jones and DeQuinta Jones missed spring due to injury, but will be back this fall and there’s a wealth of depth behind them. Junior college transfer Robert Thomas might be the best and most athletic option in the middle is primed to break out.

3. LSU: There are some questions about the experience the Tigers bring back, but no one will question the talent and athleticism in Baton Rouge. Sam Montgomery is back at defensive end, after suffering a serious knee injury. He hasn’t played much, but the coaches believe he’s got what it takes to be a top end in this league. Kendrick Adams started 11 games last year at end, while Lavar Edwards filled in for Montgomery. Ego Ferguson redshirted last year, but should get a ton of playing time in the middle this fall. He is already one of the most athletic tackles in the SEC. Don’t forget about five-star early enrollee Anthony Johnson, who made very strong impressions on his coaches this spring and will be in the rotation inside.

4. Florida: This unit was criticized for lacking toughness last season, but will be full of that and even more athleticism in 2011. Jaye Howard is returning from spring ankle surgery and is already considered a top defensive tackle prospect in next year’s NFL draft. Alongside him are youngsters Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley. Floyd was the most consistent of the much-ballyhooed freshman class last fall, while Easley struggled with attitude problems. Easley has rebounded and both excelled this spring. Omar Hunter is finally healthy and will share time with Floyd at noseguard and senior William Green will occupy an end spot. This group is even better when Ronald Powell lines up at end in the 4-3.

5. Alabama: On paper, there are a few questions with this group, but it’s hard to drop Alabama very far on this list. The 3-4 scheme will have senior Josh Chapman at noseguard. Chapman started 12 games in the middle last fall, totaling 31 tackles, including 3.5 for loss. Damion Square will compete for time on the outside, and since returning from his ACL injury, he’s gained a lot more playing confidence and could be a budding star in the league. Junior college transfers Quinton Dial and Jesse Williams will compete for time on the line as well, while sophomore Ed Stinson will stay at end after starting last season at Jack linebacker.

6. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs have arguably the top returning tackle tandem in the SEC. Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd are the behemoths in the middle who combined for 53 tackles, 13 for loss and five sacks last year. Finding any sort of inside running game against Mississippi State will be extremely tough. Developing a pass-rusher is the next step for the Bulldogs’ staff. Sean Ferguson occupies one side, but the other is still up for grabs. Trevor Stigers and Shane McCardell battled for the spot this spring, but neither has really pushed ahead.

7. Georgia: There is a lot of talent in Athens, but there could be a lot of movement on the line. JUCO transfer John Jenkins is the big -- and we mean big -- name up front and he’s yet to play a down in the SEC. He arrives with a ton of hype, but is perfect at noseguard in Todd Grantham’s 3-4. DeAngelo Tyson moves to his natural position outside after playing noseguard last year. Kwame Geathers played in the middle this spring, but could be usurped for Jenkins this fall and move outside. Abry Jones is still maturing after moving to end and recording 34 tackles including 3.5 for loss last season and had a 16-tackle performance against Georgia Tech.

8. Auburn: The Tigers must replace three starters this season. Inside, Auburn is talented but inexperienced with Kenneth Carter and Jeffrey Whitaker having 13 combined tackles from a year ago. There’s less concern on the outside with lone returning starter Nosa Eguae on one side and sophomore Corey Lemonier on the other. Eguae might have more experience with 11 starts, but Lemonier appears to be more athletic and should be near the top of the defensive end pool this year. After that, the Tigers are young across the board.

9. Tennessee: The Volunteers’ line will grow with senior Malik Jackson running things in the middle. He had 48 tackles and five sacks a year ago and some think he’ll be even better this fall. A lot will also be expected from incoming JUCO transfer Maurice Couch. He’s pretty athletic at 6-foot-4, 327 pounds and he’ll be greatly needed, considering the dismissal of Montori Hughes. Jacques Smith has All-SEC potential and will hold one of the end spots. After that, Tennessee has some young, but encouragingly talented bodies at each position.

10. Ole Miss: Some of the best news of the spring coming out of Oxford was the return of Kentrell Lockett at defensive end. Lockett was granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA and will not only be the Rebels’ top lineman but possibly their best defensive player. After that, the questions roll in with four tackles gone and youth coming in. Tackle Justin Smith has yet to really emerge as the All-SEC talent he was expected to be and Ole Miss is smaller up front. JUCO transfer Gilbert Pena could add some size in the middle. Gerald Rivers returns to get time at end, but has played in just 15 career games in two years.

11. Vanderbilt: This was supposed to be a strength for the Commodores last year until injuries hit. Still, Vanderbilt returns three starters. Experience is there, but this unit has to continue to improve, especially in the pass-rushing department where the Commodores had just 20 sacks in 2010. Rob Lohr led Vanderbilt with four sacks a year ago and had 35 tackles. T.J. Greenstone is coming off of injury and will line up inside. Tim Fugger was one of the Commodores' most consistent players at end, playing in every game and registering three sacks and four forced fumbles.

12. Kentucky: End Collins Ukwu and tackle Luke McDermott return with the most experience on Kentucky’s line. Ukwu improved not only on the field but in the weight room this spring and is expected to be a more consistent pass-rusher. McDermott is a walk-on currently ahead of Donte Rumph, who has the talent to be one of Kentucky’s top defenders, but has yet to fully buy in to the program. The coaches are also waiting for tackle Mister Cobble to finally break out of his funk and be a regular contributor. The rest of Kentucky’s linemen have some developing to do and are inexperienced.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Chris Marve’s first impression of his new coach wasn’t necessarily on the money.

Marve, Vanderbilt’s All-SEC linebacker, rode to the airport back in December with vice chancellor of university affairs and athletics David Williams to pick up James Franklin the day he was introduced as the Commodores’ head coach.

“He was so mild-mannered, almost laid back,” Marve recalled. “But when we got on the field this spring, it’s like he flipped a switch. He was on top of you every minute and every practice and didn’t let up.

“I was like, ‘This is the same guy?’ There’s an energy about him, an enthusiasm and the kind of charisma this program hasn’t had. The guys on this team responded, too, because nobody wants to go back to where we’ve been the last two years.”

Not that anybody at Vanderbilt needs to be reminded, but that would be 2-10 each of the past two seasons with only one SEC victory along the way.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Mitch Stringer/US PresswireJames Franklin feels Vanderbilt's acacdemic reputation and being in the SEC are selling points for recruits.
That’s after the Commodores manufactured their first winning season in 26 years in 2008, which was capped by their first bowl victory in 53 years.

Bobby Johnson had proved that you could indeed win at Vanderbilt in this era, albeit for one season, but Johnson abruptly resigned just prior to the 2010 season.

Franklin, 39, is determined to prove you can win at Vanderbilt and continue winning.

It’s a daunting challenge, maybe the toughest job in all of college football when you consider Vanderbilt’s stringent academic requirements and the strength of the SEC, which has produced the last five national champions.

Franklin doesn’t flinch.

After all, Stanford has found a way to make it work in the Pac-10, and Northwestern has had its moments in the Big Ten.

“The reality is that you can take what they’ve done at Stanford and you can take what they’ve done at Northwestern, and you can take general philosophies and plans,” Franklin said. “But you better have a plan that’s specific to that institution you’re at, and Vanderbilt is a very unique institution. A lot of people say, ‘You’re in the SEC,’ and compare that to the Big Ten or compare it to the Pac-10,’ and people look at that as a negative. I look at it as a positive.

“We have a chance to attract student-athletes from all over the country who can say they have a chance to get a world-class education and play in the greatest football conference in America. So if you’re really as good as you think you are and you’re a guy who doesn’t want to settle in life and wants the best of everything, Vanderbilt’s the choice for you.

“You can spin it anyway you want. I’m an optimist, so I spin it from a positive perspective.”

One thing Franklin isn’t spinning is how much the Commodores need to upgrade their speed and depth at all positions if they’re going to compete in the SEC.

The lack of depth and experience in the offensive line is particularly frightening, but the Commodores do have 20 of their 22 starters from a year ago returning.

So it’s not like Franklin is inheriting a group of guys who’ve never played in this league.

They just haven’t won in this league, at least not on a consistent basis. But as senior defensive end Tim Fugger points out, there’s still a nucleus of players remaining -- quarterback Larry Smith, cornerback Casey Hayward, safety Sean Richardson, defensive tackle T.J. Greenstone, Marve and Fugger -- who were around for that 2008 season when the Commodores broke through to finish 7-6.

The trick is regaining that confidence and keeping it this time.

“The year we went to the Music City Bowl, we got all the way to No. 13 in the rankings and our confidence was really high,” Fugger said. “But then we hit a skid and kind of felt like it was the same old Vanderbilt and here we go again.

“It was the same way these past two seasons, but Coach Franklin and his staff have brought in so much energy and we’ve been working so hard that I think that confidence is finally coming back. You could see it in the way we practiced this spring. Practices have been a lot more competitive, and it’s been a real fun experience watching the turnaround.”

Franklin, previously the offensive coordinator at Maryland, realizes that he’s hardly the first new head coach to show up at Vanderbilt proclaiming that he has a vision to take the Commodores places in football they’ve never been in this league.

And down deep, Franklin doesn’t mind that there are so many doubters.

“To me, this is no different than the rest of my career,” he said. “You don’t get from East Stroudsburg, a Division II school in Pennsylvania, to being a head coach in the SEC by always taking the safe choice. We have a chance to do something really, really special, a way to differentiate ourselves.”

As far as what has or hasn’t been done in the past at Vanderbilt, Franklin offers a confident shrug.

“We want to study our history and have respect for our history,” Franklin said. “I have tremendous respect for the coaches that came before me here, but I also have the mentality that that part of Vanderbilt football -- although we respect it and appreciate the former players that have been here -- that’s done. That’s over. All the negative memories we’ve had in the past are gone.

“It’s a new day, and because of this administration’s support, we’re able to do things that are going to allow us to get where we want to go.”

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