Vanderbilt Football: Surviving after the James Franklin era

Vanderbilt Football lost key talent from the James Franklin era.
NCAA Football: Kentucky at VanderbiltNov 16, 2013; Nashville, TN, USA; Vanderbilt Commodores head coach James Franklin waves to fans as he departs the field after defeating the Kentucky Wildcats 22-6 during the second half at Vanderbilt Stadium. ( Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports)

(C+P) — Two winning seasons and two bowl game appearances highlighted the Vanderbilt football program for the 30 years prior to James Franklin becoming the head coach in 2011. In three seasons at the helm, Franklin helped the Commodores achieve things the program never imagined.

During his three-year tenure the Commodores boasted a 24-15 record including three consecutive bowl game appearances. Also, for the first time in program history, the Commodores finished consecutive seasons ranked in the top 25.

However, this success that Commodore fans were becoming accustomed to is in jeopardy following Franklin’s departure for Penn State. They must now rely on Derek Mason, Franklin’s replacement and former Stanford defensive coordinator, to continue to build the program.


April 9, 2011; San Francisco, CA, USA; Stanford Cardinal associate head coach Derek Mason (center) instructs his team during the Cardinal & White spring game at Kezar Stadium.  (Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)
April 9, 2011; San Francisco, CA, USA; Stanford Cardinal associate head coach Derek Mason (center) instructs his team during the Cardinal & White spring game at Kezar Stadium. (Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

In 2012, Mason was a finalist for the Broyles Award, which is given to the top assistant coach in college football each season. As co-defensive coordinator in 2011 and defensive coordinator in 2012 and 2013, he helped lead Stanford to three straight BCS bowl appearances.

Mason’s résumé clearly shows his potential to improve this Vanderbilt program. With a number of key starters not returning, here are the pivotal things he must focus on for the upcoming season.


Aug 15, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Jordan Matthews (81) runs the ball against the New England Patriots in the first half during the preseason game at Gillette Stadium. The New England Patriots defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 42-35. (David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports)
Aug 15, 2014; Foxborough, MA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Jordan Matthews (81) runs the ball against the New England Patriots in the first half during the preseason game at Gillette Stadium. The New England Patriots defeated the Philadelphia Eagles 42-35. (David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports)

Replacing Jordan Matthews

The Commodores lost the SEC’s career record holder in receptions and yards, Jordan Matthews, after the Philadelphia Eagles drafted him in the second round. Matthews recorded 262 receptions for 3,759 yards in his college career. Last season he accounted for 1,477 of Vanderbilt’s 2,958 receiving yards as well as 7 of their 15 receiving touchdowns.

They will also be without the services of wide out Jonathan Krause, who caught 42 passes for 714 yards and three touchdowns last season. Krause will be playing for the Cleveland Browns this season after being signed as a free agent.

Jordan Cunningham is the top returning receiver for the Commodores. The rising sophomore caught 15 passes for 123 yards last season. Ranked the 107th best player in his recruiting class by ESPN.com, Cunningham is one of the most talented players on the Vanderbilt roster. Look for a big year from him as he emerges as the Commodores’ top receiver.

Junior Kris Kentera could be a valuable piece for the Commodores after moving from tight end to wide receiver this offseason. Last season Kentera caught 13 passes for 100 yards and one touchdown.

The Commodores also return tight end Steven Scheu. The 6”5 junior played in 12 games as a sophomore, bringing in nine catches for 123 yards and one touchdown. Having a reliable tight end will take some of the pressure off the younger, inexperienced wide receivers.


NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Florida
Nov 9, 2013; Gainesville, FL, USA; Vanderbilt Commodores quarterback Patton Robinette (4) pumps his fist and celebrates after they beat the Florida Gators at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Vanderbilt Commodores defeated the Florida Gators 34-17. (Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports)

Developing a Quarterback

Last year’s starter Austyn Carta-Samuels graduated, leaving the 2014 Commodore squad inexperienced at quarterback. With a heated competition still ensuing, it will be vital for one of the three candidates to assert himself early.

Sophomore Patton Robinette enters the fall as the only candidate to have thrown a pass for the Commodores. As a freshman he threw 88 passes completing 46 of those for 642 yards and four touchdowns. Robinette started three games last season, winning two of those, including a win in the BBVA Compass Bowl against Houston.

Stephen Rivers will also be competing for the job. The 6”7 LSU transfer is the younger brother of San Diego Chargers’ quarterback Phillip Rivers. Rivers lacks experience, as he threw only two passes over his three years at LSU. Hopefully, having backed up former LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger will help Rivers develop into a successful starter for the Commodores.

Redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary is the final candidate for the job. The Georgia native performed well in the spring game completing 10 of his 18 passes for 94 yards. Along with being an Army All-American his senior year, McCrary was ranked tenth nationally among dual threat quarterbacks by Rivals.com. His running ability may give him the edge to become the starter this season.


Dec 31, 2012; Nashville, TN, USA; Vanderbilt Commodores safety Eric Samuels (22) and safety Andrew Williamson (32) reach for a loose ball against the North Carolina State Wolfpack during the first half of the Music City Bowl at LP Field. The Commodores beat the Wolfpack 38-24. Mandatory credit: Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports
Vanderbilt Commodores safety Eric Samuels (22) and safety Andrew Williamson (32) reach for a loose ball against the North Carolina State Wolfpack during the first half of the Music City Bowl at LP Field. (Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports)

 Rebuilding the Secondary

The Commodores enter the 2014 season with a completely new secondary after losing all four of their starting defensive backs to the NFL. However, Mason’s experience coaching defensive backs should make the rebuilding process much easier.

Paris Head appears to be the frontrunner for one of the cornerback spots. As a freshman he played in all 13 games recording 22 tackles and three interceptions. Both Darrius Sims and Torren McGaster also played in every game during their freshman seasons and should see significant playing time in 2014.

Incoming freshmen Tre Herndon and Bryce Lewis could see action this year at cornerback. Both were rated three-star prospects by ESPN.com and could be ready to contribute right away.

Juniors Andrew Williamson and Jahmel McIntosh should take over the safety positions this season. Williamson recorded 20 tackles and two interceptions in 12 games during his sophomore year. McIntosh played in every game last season notching 17 tackles and one interception.

Emmanuel Smith is one of the most talented recruits the Commodores landed in this year’s recruiting class. Ranked the 25th best defensive back by Rivals.com, Smith could make a huge impact at safety.

With four of their first eight games being against ranked opponents, it is crucial for Vanderbilt to win their season opener against Temple on August 28th.


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