by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Vanderbilt...a football school?

Well, maybe not yet. But the dream of long-suffering Commodore backers to at least emerge from their seemingly-eternal punching bag status within the SEC took a big step toward reality a year ago when Vandy materialized as one of the nation’s surprise teams under first-year HC James Franklin, qualifying for a rare bowl visit en route.

Franklin’s hiring the previous winter concluded an even more-bumpy period than usual for Dore football after HC Bobby Johnson’s surprise resignation in the summer of 2010. Vandy’s soldiered forward that fall with offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell running the team on an interim basis, and while Caldwell gained high marks for his quips and sense of humor (SEC media days had never experienced anything like him), his short-lived regime was predictably overmatched.

After a second straight 2-10 campaign in 2010, and all momentum from the 2008 Music City Bowl campaign seemingly lost, Vandy rolled the dice when hiring Franklin, who had been Maryland’s offensive coordinator and “coach-in-waiting” during the last years of the Ralph Friedgen era in College Park, but who escaped the mushroom cloud forming over the Terp program in December of 2010 when accepting the Nashville assignment.

Franklin had not been Vandy’s first choice; instead, Auburn o.c. Gus Malzahn was the original target for the Dores, who thought they had Gus teed up and ready to roll in mid-December of 2010. But sources now believe that Malzahn and especially his agent Jimmy Sexton were simply playing negotiating games with Vandy administrator David Williams, looking instead to set floors with future negotiations (if that was the case, it might have helped Sexton with other clients but didn’t end up working too well for Malzahn, who eventually accepted a Sun Belt head coaching job with Arkansas State at far less pay).

Rebuffed by Malzahn, Vandy probably ended up better anyway with Franklin, who immediately ignited the Commodore offense and turned Vandy into an explosive and entertaining outfit, especially after a midseason shift to juco transfer Jordan Rodgers (Aaron’s younger brother) at QB. The Dores were a force during the second half of the season, narrowly missing upset chances at home vs. Georgia and Arkansas, and blowing a golden opportunity for a rare win at Tennessee, but routing the likes of Army, Kentucky, and Wake Forest to get bowl-eligible at 6-6.

A subsequent 31-24 Liberty Bowl loss vs. Cincinnati did little to dampen the enthusiasm of the apparent new direction of the program under Franklin.

With that new-found prowess, however, comes the sort of scrutiny that Vandy hasn’t had to worry about as much in the past. Which includes debate over school policies that have drifted over to the athletic department and become a major news item in Nashville and the region.

Involved in the controversy has been the aforementioned David Williams (left), former Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs who oversaw athletic department operations but recently named the school’s AD, filling a post that had been vacant since Todd Turner left for Washington nine years earlier. But Williams, a Detroit native also well-versed in the history of Motown music (indeed, he has conducted a colorful seminar at past Vandy homecomings, tracing the roots of the legendary Motown sound), along with school president Nicholas Zeppos, have unknowingly dropped Vandy into an alligator pool of boosters who have threatened to withhold significant donations, especially those to the school’s athletic department.

The reason? A new school policy that “ensures diversity of thought and opinion” among student groups on campus has struck a raw nerve with the Dore support base that has rebelled with print and TV advertisements and, if sources are correct, has resulted in substantial donors, many of those partial to athletics, sitting out recent fund-raising campaigns.

The fuse had been lit late last year when, after a Christian fraternity allegedly expelled a gay undergraduate because of his sexual practices, Vanderbilt refocused its efforts to make the more than 300 student organizations on campus to comply with its “long-standing nondiscrimination policy.”

That policy, according to a university official, does not allow the Christian Legal Society “to preclude someone from a leadership position based on religious belief.”

So, in Vandy’s new interpretation, an organization formed to express religious beliefs, is itself effectively forbidden.

There is much pertinent history regarding past court rulings on the subject. Although, in wiser moments, the court has held that “this freedom to gather in association...necessarily presupposes the freedom to identify the people who constitute the association and to limit the association to those people only.”

In 1984, William Brennan, the Supreme Court's leading progressive of the last half-century, said:

“There can be no clearer example of an intrusion into the internal structure or affairs of an association than a regulation that forces the group to accept members it does not desire. Such a regulation may impair the ability of the original members to express only those views that brought them together. Freedom of association therefore plainly presupposes a freedom not to associate.”

Professor Michael McConnell of Stanford Law School echoes the same. “Not everything the government chooses to call discrimination is invidious; some of it is constitutionally protected First Amendment activity,” says McConnell. Whereas it is wrong for government to prefer one religion over another, when private persons and religious groups do so, this is the constitutionally protected free exercise of religion.

“Preventing private groups from discriminating on the basis of shared beliefs,” McDonnell adds, “is not only not a compelling governmental interest; it is not even a legitimate governmental interest.”

The issue at Vanderbilt, and elsewhere, for that matter, should not be whether a particular viewpoint is right but whether an expressive association has a right to espouse it. Unfortunately, in the name of tolerance, what is tolerable is being defined ever more narrowly.

Although Vandy is a private institution, its policy is consistent with “progressive” public policy, under which society shall be made to progress up from a multiple of viewpoints to a government-supervised harmony. Vandy’s policy, formulated in the name of enlarging rights, is another skirmish in the progressives’ struggle to deny more and more social entities the right to deviate from government-promoted homogeneity of belief. Such compulsory conformity is, of course, enforced in the name of diversity.

Heavy stuff, and the sort of debate that can cause significant rifts within a community (or school, as the case may be). We make mention it all because of its pending impact upon the Commodore athletic program, at just the time when the school’s long-suffering football team appears ready to emerge frm the wilderness.

And it’s not just withholding of athletic department donations that has resulted, but involvement of the athletes themselves in the debate. Several have taken sides, most of those challenging the school policy. The most vocal dissenter among athletes has ironically been QB Rodgers, who has taken on a very unconventional role for a college football star and become a featured component of the debate.

And another reason why Vandy, the only private school in the conference, is a much different place than almost everywhere else in the football-mad SEC.

But on the sidelines, James Franklin has certainly added a new and dynamic element to the Commodore mix. Long-regarded as a recruiting maven, Franklin has upgraded the Vandy prep haul considerably, dipping into his former stronghold in the mid-Atlantic region while also making inroads into talent-rich areas such as Atlanta metro, which produces countless FBS-level gridiron talent each year. Another big Commodore recruiting bonanza at signing day last February was further confirmation of the upswing in Nashville.

Franklin also welcomes back 16 starters from a year ago, when the emergence of playmaking QB Rodgers added the sort of dangerous offensive dimension the Dores had lacked since Jay Cutler’s senior year in 2005.

Rodgers could admittedly stand to improve upon his passing accuracy (he completed just 50% of his 216 throws a year ago), and his TDP/interception ratio was only 9/10, but his playmaking bent was noticeable and reflected in his 420 rush yards. If not always on the mark, Rodgers (right) does provide the Dores with a downfield passing threat and ability to make plays with his legs. Rodgers is especially lethal against opposing prevent defenses, able to pick up big chunks of yards with his legs thanks to an uncanny ability to know when he should take off from the pocket.

In short, he’s a playmaker, the sort the Dores have had only rarely (namely Cutler) at QB over the past three decades. Relief this fall comes from Wyoming transfer Austyn Carta-Samuels, who starred as a frosh for the Cowboys in 2009 and was picking up the multiple formations and option principles within the Franklin offense during spring.

A new face to watch on the attack end is RS frosh Josh Grady, a former prep QB who provides all sorts of “slash” opportunities not too unlike Randall Cobb provided at Kentucky in recent years. Though Grady figures into the WR mix this fall, look for Franklin to also spot him in direct-snap situations, in which Grady appeared lethal in the spring game when gaining 94 yards on just five runs, and scoring a TD in the process.

Still, keeping Rodgers healthy and in one piece is imperative. Should Rodgers go down, Franklin will have to reach deep into his bag of tricks, forced to utilize Grady out of the Wildcat, rolling out Carta-Samuels, and further diffusing defensive pressure with counters, reverses, and orbit sweeps designed to slow the pursuit of many man-eating SEC defenses on the schedule.

Supporting weaponry is hardly in short supply, especially at RB, where electric sr. Zac Stacy (left, vs. Florida last November) exploded for 1193 YR and 5.9 ypc, plus 14 TDs, in 2011. And the Dores figure to have a potent 1-2 punch if the leading rusher in 2009 & ‘10 (when gaining 1219 YR and 5.5 ypc), long-ball hitter Warren Norman, is back to 100% from the knee injury that resulted in his redshirt a year ago and his absence from spring work. True frosh whippet Brian Kimbrow, a highlight-reel package from Memphis who has been compared to former Cal and current Detroit Lion Jahvid Best, will be hard to keep off of the field as well.

Better yet, Rodgers has most of his familiar receiving targets from 2011 still in the fold, including big targets 6'3 Jordan Matthews (right, a deep-ball threat who gained 19 yards per catch on his 41 receptions last fall; bloodlines are good, too, as he’s also a cousin of Jerry Rice) and 6'4 Chris Boyd (8 TDs among his 31 catches a year ago).

And even though center Logan Stewart was dismissed from the team in the offseason, four of five starters still return along an experienced offensive line. Another of the touted frosh, LT Andrew Jelks, looks like a star of the future and will tempt Franklin and o.c. John Donovan to resist a redshirt campaign this fall.

If there’s one area in which the Dores could use some improvement, however, it’s the kicking game, which was inconsistent a year ago when converting on only 8 of 14 FG tries and never once connecting on an attempt beyond 40 yards. After splitting duties a year ago, sr. PK Ryan Fowler must step up this fall.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in Nashville last fall was the emergence of a heat-seeking stop unit that ranked 18th nationally in total defense (even more impressive than it seems on the surface, considering competition in the high-level SEC) and 29th in scoring defense at 21.8 ppg. Many longtime Vandy observers considered it the best defensive display by the Dores since legendary HC Art Guepe’s 1955 team held seven of ten foes to single-digit scoring and made it to the Gator Bowl, where Vandy beat Auburn.

Seven starters return from last year’s accomplished platoon, although key playmakers LB Chris Marve and CB Casey Hayward have departed for the NFL from d.c. Bob Shoop’s speed-based unit that aligns in traditional 4-3 looks.

Still, the Dores are far from their old roadkill status, thanks in part to big upgrades along a DL that fought back last fall after being pushed around for years. 290-pound senior DT Rob Lohr was a playmaking machine in 2011 (11 ½ tackles for loss and five sacks), and speed-based jr. DE Walter May has hinted at becoming the sort of pass-rush threat that departed DE Tim Fugger (and his eight sacks; also an Indianapolis Colts draftee) provided a year ago. True frosh DE Caleb Azubike was another recruiting steal by Franklin, and whose 4.65 speed in the 40 suggests a potential immediate impact element on the edge, perhaps as a designated pass rusher this fall.

Filling the large shoes of LB Marve (the SEC’s leading tackler over the last four years) could pose problems, but Shoop believes that moving mobile and hard-hitting 234-lb. jr. Chase Garnham from an OLB spot to Marve’s old ILB position will pay dividends. Some SEC scouts wonder, however, if Garnham’s sideline-to-sideline pursuit abilities aren’t better-suited to an outside rather than an inside LB spot. Meanwhile, sr. OLB Archibald Barnes (left, smashing a Kentucky runner last November) is another who pursues with abandon and returns as the leading tackler from a year ago.

Shoop must also replace departed ball-hawks CB Hayward and S Sean Richardson in the secondary. But sr. Trey Wilson (right) emerged as a shutdown corner last year who also flashed a big-play bent when returning two picks for scores. Junior free safety Javon Marshall also impressed in his starting debut last fall and should be good to go for fall camp after missing spring workouts due to injury.

No SEC schedule is ever a picnic, however, and some regional observers are wondering how Franklin’s team might fare now that it is wearing something of a target, rather than being able to sneak up on unsuspecting foes as it did a year ago. There are no breathers on the slate save for home dates on September 15 vs. the Presbyterian Blue Hose and October 27 vs. the UMass Minutemen, the latter moving up to the FBS level for the first time this fall. After the home opener on Thursday, August 30 vs. South Carolina, the Dores aren’t home to face another FBS foe until mid-October, and will have trekked to Northwestern, Georgia, and SEC newcomer Missouri in the interim. The Dores also close with three of their last four on the road vs. a trio of revenge-minded foes (Kentucky, Ole Miss, and Wake Forest).

Spread-wise, the presence of Franklin and the element of surprise helped contribute to Vandy’s solid 9-4 spread performance last fall. The Dores also covered five of six as chalk during regular-season play, a role that had haunted Vandy teams for the previous decade. Some positive Vandy spread trends extend back into the Caldwell and Bobby Johnson years, the Dores are 21-12 as a road underdog since the 2004 campaign.

Summary...It’s a different experience to not have to summarily dismiss Vandy from the SEC discussion as we have annually done through the years. James Franklin has changed the dynamics in Nashville, and the Dores are paying big bucks (reportedly north of $2 million per year after a contract upgrade) to make sure Franklin, who has already been rumored as a target at several other locales, stays in the fold. Nonetheless, we’re careful not to get too carried away with projections regarding this year's Dores, who won’t be sneaking up on anybody in the fall and are an injury to QB Jordan Rodgers away from being in scramble mode. But the days of being a gridiron pushover seem to be over (at least for the moment) at Vandy. And for the first time in a long while, the support base will very disappointed if the Dores don’t make it to a bowl game.


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