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FEARLESSNESS IS USEFUL WHEN TAKING OVER A PROGRAM WITH four wins in two years, and from the sound of it, James Franklin has that quality in spades. The new coach says as much—"we're not afraid"—several times when outlining plans for his first year at Vanderbilt's helm: There will be no fear to send defenders at the quarterback, press opposing wide receivers or take chances throwing downfield. More broadly there will be no fear of making mistakes. "Philosophically," he says, "we're going to be aggressive."
Franklin aims to change the culture in the Commodores' program, a perennial bottom-dweller in the mighty SEC. The coach's attitude is evidenced not just by planned schemes but also by his choice to enter training camp without a depth chart as part of an effort "to build one of the most competitive environments in the country."
That will manifest itself at quarterback, where two-year starter Larry Smith will have to fend off a quartet of challengers. Smith has the physical and mental tools Franklin values in a quarterback—"He's a guy I'd recruit every year," Smith says—but has struggled with accuracy (a 47.6% career completion rate). The team spent spring practice working on Smith's footwork while junior Jordan Rodgers recovered from shoulder surgery. With Rodgers now healthy and a trio of freshman signal-callers joining the team, Franklin wants a "true competition" to unfold in camp.
Overall the offense remains a work in progress. Five starters return on the offensive line, but the unit gave up three sacks per game last fall and starts sophomores at left tackle and center. And though most of the corps of wideouts also remains intact, more production will be needed from a unit among whose members no individual topped 25 catches or 317 yards last year.
More will also be needed from the defense, the similarly troubled half of a team whose average 2010 SEC game was on the wrong side of a 34--12 score. There Franklin has installed two FCS coaches—Bob Shoop (William & Mary) and Brent Pry (Georgia Southern)—as defensive coordinators. It's a large leap from Division I's second tier to the SEC, but to get Vanderbilt out of the cellar, risks are what Franklin is prepared to take.
COACH James Franklin (1st year)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR John Donovan
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR Bob Shoop