The view from Nashville: Ask a beat writer

semerson@macon.comSeptember 20, 2012 

ATHENS - One of the best ways to preview a game is to see what the beat writer from a team thinks. So we're very glad to turn to Jeff Lockridge, the Vanderbilt beat writer for The Tennessean newspaper in Vanderbilt.

You can follow Jeff's outstanding coverage on his blog right here, and you can follow him on Twitter at @jefflockridge.

This worked both ways too: I answered Jeff's questions about the game for his blog, and you can read that here

1. Let's get this one of the way: The James Franklin-Todd Grantham brouhaha last year: What was the general reaction to it around your parts last year, does it still get talked about, and do you expect it to have any effect at all on Vanderbilt entering this game?

JL: I don’t expect that to have any impact on the game, although it wouldn’t surprise me if things get chippy at some point. Yes, it still gets brought up. The general reaction around Nashville, predictably, was that Grantham was a hot head and the villain in this situation. I think a lot of Vanderbilt fans liked the fact that Franklin didn’t walk away after Georgia player Shawn Williams said something in his direction. Franklin certainly could have handled it better, but I also think he was sending a message to his players that they - pardon the phrase - won’t take crap from anyone.

2. Franklin, as we know, hasn't been afraid to put himself out there to sell himself and the program and try to change the culture at Vanderbilt. How are his efforts being received, a year in, around Nashville and the surrounding areas?

JL: Franklin has gone a long way toward changing the attitude on campus and within the locker room, and to a degree, with the fan base as well. Reaching a bowl game in his first season helped, as did having chances to win against Georgia, Arkansas, Florida and Tennessee. Season ticket sales are up considerably in his second year. On the whole, he is still being received in a positive light, and that seems to be reflected by what he’s doing in recruiting. However, everyone has heard the same sales pitch since Dec. 2010, so the message itself doesn’t go as far as wins do at this stage.

3. Time to talk football. Jordan Rodgers started the first two games at quarterback, and the Commodores lost both. Austyn Carta-Samuels, a transfer from Wyoming, started last weekend and Vanderbilt had 605 total yards to beat Presbyterian. Was it just because it was, well, Presbyterian, or do you think the offense is much more potent with Carta-Samuels? And what's the latest on who will play quarterback this weekend?

JL: With all due respect to Carta-Samuels, Vandy’s yardage last week had to do with the opponent and a better effort in the running game. I don’t think we can say the offense is any more potent with Carta-Samuels yet. I would argue the offense is more potent with Rodgers, who strikes me as more of a playmaker and accurate passer (this was the case in preseason camp and last spring when the competition wasn’t that close). But in Carta-Samuels, Franklin feels like he has someone that can minimize mistakes/turnovers and make the safe decision, and that seems to be priority No. 1. As of Wednesday afternoon, Franklin had not declared a starter, but I would be floored if he reversed course and went back to Rodgers after starting Carta-Samuels last week and putting him atop the depth chart this week. I can’t see that happening. You have already probably dinged up the confidence of one guy; another change could get them both.

4. In last year's Georgia-Vanderbilt game, Zac Stacy rushed for 97 yards, and also had a halfback pass for a touchdown. So far this year Stacy, a senior, has 258 rushing yards and is averaging 7.6 yards a carry - 86 of them coming on one run. Stacy obviously can be dangerous if he can get in space, but how good is Vanderbilt at getting him in that space and opening some holes for him?

JL: The offensive line was not good about opening rushing lanes for Stacy in the first two games. Those lanes were everywhere last week against Presbyterian. So we’ll see this week how much progress has been made up front on Saturday. Stacy is the go-to guy in this offense, and for good reason. He set Vanderbilt’s single-season rushing record last season with 1,193 yards and he’s a tough kid. If Stacy and fellow backs Brian Kimbrow, Wesley Tate and Warren Norman cannot get going, it will be a long night for the Commodores.

5. Turning to Vanderbilt's defense, despite losing some key players - especially cornerback Casey Hayward - the Commodores have a lot of experience: Five seniors and six juniors on the first team. On paper, the defense has done fairly decent: Holding South Carolina to 17 points, Northwestern to 23 and shutting out Presbyterian. Is that a fair assessment?

JL: Yes, that’s pretty fair. Vanderbilt would like to have a few more turnovers at this point, and getting off the field in the fourth quarter (when fatigue may have been a factor) has been an issue in the losses. But I think defensive coordinator Bob Shoop has mixed in a number of looks with his blitzes and made steady progress with the unit. I still worry about the quickness at certain spots and the ability to make consistent plays at linebacker against a speedy offense that can get to the edge in a hurry. This will be the defense’s biggest test yet.

6. Vanderbilt made it a close game with Georgia last year largely through special teams - a kick return touchdown, the blocked punt in the final minute - and with a bit of trickery - the aforementioned Stacy halfback pass. Is trickery something that still has to be in the Commodores' playbook, or does Franklin think he is close to having the horses to line up against Georgia and win in the trenches?

JL: There is still some trickery, but we haven’t seen nearly as much as last season. Vanderbilt has a nice “Wildcat” quarterback in redshirt freshman Josh Grady, who was recruited as a quarterback but now plays slot receiver. The offense has shown that look once or twice a game. And there are reverses. But not much other than that, although I think Franklin would be more apt to call for trickery when the Commodores are a big underdog on the road like this week. The best part about special teams is that Vanderbilt is actually making its field goals now: junior Carey Spear is 7 of 8. Also of note, freshman Caleb Azubike (No. 55) blocked a punt last week (though it was nullified by a holding penalty away from the play) and nearly got a block at Northwestern. He’s one to watch.

7. So wrapping it up, as I always do in this segment: What are the two or three keys for Vanderbilt in this game if it's going to pull the upset?

JL: It’s probably the basic stuff you’d expect to hear regarding any underdog on the road: run the ball well, have a solid third-down conversion percentage and win the turnover battle. Assuming Carta-Samuels is the guy under center, he needs to make quick and accurate reads in his second start. Stacy or Kimbrow may need to break a long run. The defense may need to intercept Aaron Murray a couple of times. If those things happen and special teams go Vanderbilt’s way, then it should be a close game. If not, the Bulldogs have the ability to run away and hide.

Follow Seth Emerson at @sethemerson.

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