I got together with Christian D'Andrea of SB Nation's Vanderbilt blog Anchor of Gold to chat about this weekend's game. Here's what he had to say; questions are in bold. Be sure to check back to Anchor of Gold later today or tomorrow to see my answers to his his questions.
1. To what extent has the rape scandal has been a distraction to the team? How costly is it not to have WR Chris Boyd available?
The team has done a good job of keeping off-field distractions off the field, but there's no doubt that this horrible scandal has taken a toll on the team. We may never know the full extent of how it's being processed by the guys who have to play every Saturday. I doubt we'll get a straight answer on that this year - if ever.
As far as Boyd goes, his absence is a significant loss for the team. He added an extra dimension to the passing game that Jonathan Krause has been able to replicate about 75 percent of. He's a good receiver, but he's not the unavoidable threat that Boyd has been for this team. Boyd was a big red zone target, and if he played in the season opener I think Vanderbilt would have beaten Ole Miss. Fortunately for Vanderbilt, true freshman Jordan Cunningham - a consensus 4-star recruit - emerged last week to catch eight passes. If he can continue to develop, he could play a major role for this team while Boyd's future remains in question.
2. James Franklin has led Vanderbilt to the most relevance it's enjoyed in the SEC during the modern era. What do you admire most about the job Franklin is doing in Nashville?
Franklin is challenging recruits to rise up and start a tradition rather than just be another link in the chain at a higher-powered football program. He's also selling the university's academics as a key asset rather than an obstacle. Players here have always valued their education, but now Franklin is getting high-level recruits to buy in and not only play for a winning team but go to one of the country's 20 best schools. Maybe it's due to the advent of Twitter, but these players seem more invested in academics and representing the school than ever before. That's something that makes dedicated fans proud and gets non-fans interested in what he's doing in Nashville.
3. Vanderbilt played a cupcake this past weekend, but it opened with a tough opponent in Ole Miss and suffered a disappointing loss. What did you learn about Vanderbilt from that game?
Vanderbilt played tough, but they were ultimately stopped short in one of the best games in the Vandy/Ole Miss rivalry to date. We learned a lot of things in that game, some good and some bad. We learned that Jordan Matthews can carry this team's offense even while being double or triple-teamed. We learned that Brian Kimbrow, Jerron Seymour, and Wesley Tate can replace a significant amount of what record-breaking tailback Zac Stacy brought to the table in '11 and '12. We learned that Vanderbilt STILL can't stop the read option, even when they know it's coming.
Ultimately, this team showed a lot of heart and a lot of guts. The defense looked great in spurts and terrible in flashes, but overall they played encouraging football. Austyn Carta-Samuels will be fine at quarterback. However, there's still plenty of room to grow, and their performance against South Carolina will be a big indicator of just how the rest of 2013 will pan out.
4. On offense, Vanderbilt has one of the, if not the, best receiver in the SEC in Jordan Matthews, as well as another good receiver in Jonathan Krause. Vandy also has a solid corps of running backs. However, I'm not terribly familiar with new Vandy QB Austyn Carta-Samuels, and I'd also be curious to know your thoughts about what the strengths and weaknesses on the offensive line are. Tell us about both topics, and about how Vandy will seek to neutralize Jadeveon Clowney.
Carta-Samuels is an experienced fifth-year senior who was the Mountain West Freshman of the Year while playing with Wyoming. He transferred to Vanderbilt in 2011 and spent last season backing up Jordan Rodgers (who, as ESPN assures me, is some guy named Aaron Rodgers's little brother. Neat.). He's got a strong arm and a nice touch on deep passes, but he's not as elusive as Rodgers was before him. He does several things well, but he doesn't excel in any one area. He'll have to prove that he can connect with other targets besides Matthews before he can run this offense efficiently.
The offensive line is better than it has been in years, and that's thanks to the work of Herb Hand (OL coach) and Wesley Johnson (senior captain). Johnson, in particular, is a high-level grinder who does an excellent job in pass protection and is quick and strong enough to create space on the run. Vandy's O-Lines have been shallow, piecemeal units in the past, but a backlog of high level recruits and talented veterans make this a pretty solid unit. However, they've been getting off to a slow start in the first quarter of games this year, and that could help SC get out to an early lead if they can't keep their defense on the sideline with long drives.
As far as Clowney goes, I expect Johnson will see him on as many assignments as possible. Like North Carolina and Georgia before, I think the 'Dores will look to run away from the stud DE and tire him out before expanding their playbook back to the entire field.
5. Vanderbilt's defense for years was known for being opportunistic and forcing turnovers. The school has produced a number of ball-hawking DBs such as Casey Hayward. However, last year the 'Dores struggled to force turnovers, and they failed to produce any in the opener against Ole Miss. What does Vandy have to do to force more turnovers?
We've still got the ball-hawking DBs. Steven Clarke, Kenny Ladler, and Javon Marshall are all capable of jumping passes at key moments, but the star of the Vandy secondary is Andre Hal. Hal is one of the top 10 CBs in the country, and opponents have respected that by avoiding his side of the field so far this season. Vanderbilt is still opportunistic, but they haven't had much success in forcing key turnovers. To the naked eye, it doesn't look like they're doing much different; maybe this is just the other side of the turnover luck that carried a bad Vandy team to some wins back in 2008.
I'd love to take the 'Dores...but playing an angry South Carolina on the road? That doesn't bode well. SC has won the last four matchups in this series. I think they'll take a 5th, but Vandy will make it close thanks to a strong defensive effort.
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