Brian Kimbrow and Caleb Azubike were pegged as instant impact players. Darreon Herring arrived six months early to get a head start. Jake Sealand muscled his way onto the field.
They were the only freshmen — out of 22 — who didn’t redshirt this year, and the foursome chipped in for Vanderbilt’s best regular season in 30 years.
“We knew we could come in here and make an impact,” Azubike said. “We knew we had everything to be SEC players. We just had to hone in on it and work on it here.”
After practice on Wednesday the muzzle was removed for the true freshmen, who spoke to the media for the first time as the Commodores (8-4) continued preparing for their New Year’s Eve matchup against North Carolina State (7-5) in the Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl.
All four said coach James Franklin sold them on contributing to an emerging program — even if so far that has transpired in different ways.
For Kimbrow, the state’s top prospect out of Memphis, there wasn’t any doubt he’d get on the field immediately. It was just a matter of what role the 5-foot-8 running back would play. In his first year, he helped spell senior Zac Stacy, the school’s all-time leading rusher.
“It was different because I’m used to playing a lot,” Kimbrow said. “I really had to adjust to the system and get to know everything and learn the ropes from Zac and [Wesley] Tate. I’m just taking my time. I know patience is a key nowadays.”
Kimbrow got his turns, averaging 6.4 yards over 65 carries. His 415 rushing yards were second on the team. He scored three touchdowns — all on runs longer than 40 yards — and believes he improved enough to be in line for the starting job next year.
“He never told me he was going to give me anything,” Kimbrow said of Franklin. “I really took that in. The only thing we talked about is making a change in the program and how one day I could be the face of the program if I worked.”
Besides Kimbrow, no freshman had a bigger impact than Azubike, a 6-foot-4, 245-pound defensive end.
“It was a huge adjustment from high school,” Azubike said. “Everyone is upper echelon over here. Coming in here I had to switch my mindset a little bit from being bigger and stronger than everyone to everyone being bigger and stronger than I was. I had to catch up a little bit.”
It didn’t take long for the former McGavock standout to make his presence known. He collected two sacks in his first three games and finished the regular season with four to tie for the second-most on the team.
“It definitely surprised me. But, at the same time, I wasn’t overwhelmed by it,” Azubike said. “I talked to Coach Franklin earlier and I talked to my position coach, [Sean] Spencer. They gave me the mindset I could come in here and achieve whatever I want to achieve.”
Herring got a leg up on his teammates by enrolling mid-semester last January. The native of Stone Mountain, Ga., participated in spring practices and made an early impression at weak-side linebacker.
His time behind senior Archibald Barnes paid dividends. He led all freshmen with 30 tackles. He also forced a fumble and returned an interception 40 yards against Massachusetts.
“I got a head-start for my career, just learning the speed and catching up with the speed,” Herring said. “It has been a great experience. I’m glad I came early. It really helped me out.”
The last freshman to get on the field this year was Sealand, a reserve middle linebacker who broke through in the fifth game against Missouri. He has played in every game since and has 23 tackles and a forced fumbled.
On the very first play of his college career, though, he made a mark. Just not the right kind. Playing on special teams against Missouri, he was flagged for an illegal block during a kickoff return.
“It got the butterflies out of me,” Sealand said with a smile. “A great learning experience though.”
As these true freshmen have learned from their elders, they believe the rest of the class of 2012 will soon join them on the field to help build what Franklin was selling.
“They are right there where we are they just haven’t gotten their shot yet,” Sealand said. “If they were in our shoes they would be doing the exact same thing. I feel blessed. This team is amazing and we play well together.”