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March 18, 2011
When Vanderbilt opens spring practice Friday, the Commodores will hit the field for their third head coach in the past seven months.
Bobby Johnson retired suddenly in July. Assistant Robbie Caldwell was promoted to interim coach and stepped down at the end of the season. After a flirtation with Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, Vandy eventually hired James Franklin, who had been the offensive coordinator/coach-in-waiting at Maryland.
Franklin and his staff have a lot of work to do. Vandy has won 36 games this century, and while the Commodores have had some OK defenses, the offense generally has been nightmarishly bad.
There are a lot of returning starters -- 18 -- but those guys certainly are not used to winning.
Here's a look at Vandy as the Commodores get ready for the first spring practice under Franklin.
Positions of strength
There are 18 starters back, but can a team that has just four total wins and two FBS wins in the past two seasons have any strengths? Actually, the secondary could be quite good. All four starters return, and CB Casey Hayward and SS Sean Richardson have all-league potential. TE Brandon Barden is solid and would have more acclaim if he had a quarterback who could get him the ball. All five starters return on the line, lending some hope. But that line struggled last season, and depth is a huge concern.
Help is needed
There's an overall lack of playmakers on offense. TB Warren Norman started six games before suffering a severe hand injury, and he will miss spring drills while rehabbing. Quarterback play has been a problem since Jay Cutler left. Senior Larry Smith is a former Alabama "Mr. Football," but his passing has been atrocious. There will be a full-fledged quarterback competition this spring. The defensive line has to get tougher against the run. Chris Marve is one of the best linebackers in the SEC, but the other two starting spots are open.
3 guys to watch
DE Walker May: He might be the best pass rusher on the roster, and he needs to show this spring that he can hold up against the run (he's listed at 235 pounds). Given that Vandy needs defensive playmakers, May -- a sophomore -- likely can earn a lot of playing time if he shows he can provide consistent pressure off the edge.
RB Zac Stacy: Norman's absence this spring means Stacy -- a junior -- will get ample opportunity to show he deserves to be in the starting mix. Stacy started three times last season in the wake of Norman's injury before he, too, was injured.
LB Tristan Strong: Strong blew out his knee late in the 2009 season and wasn't truly back to 100 percent until late in the 2010 season. Two starting spots at outside linebacker are open, and a good spring could mean Strong, who will be a junior, wins one of the jobs.
The pressure is on
QB Larry Smith: Smith is a senior and the only quarterback on the roster who has thrown a college pass. But he hasn't necessarily thrown them well. He's a career 47.6 percent passer, with 11 TDs and 13 picks. He does have good mobility, though, and provides an extra dimension. His chance to earn the starting job could be enhanced because Jordan Rodgers -- a junior college transfer who sat out as a redshirt last season -- will be limited during spring practice with what the school terms an "upper body injury." Rodgers, the brother of Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, is expected to be at full strength near the end of spring drills. If Smith struggles to pick up the new offense, that bodes well for Rodgers.
Vandy has to find a way to produce some offense. The Commodores averaged just 298.2 yards and 16.9 points last season; they scored just 96 points in eight SEC games, with 28 of those coming in an upset of Ole Miss. It won't help the new staff that Norman, who is the Commodores' best offensive player, will miss spring practice; nothing like implementing a new offense without your best player. Defensively, finding two new starters at linebacker is the priority. Truthfully, though, the best thing Vandy can do to help the defense is improve the offense. It's hard to play defense when you know that if you give up 21 points, your team is going to lose.
Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.