First-year head coach James Franklin didn’t recruit Larry Smith. But he is glad the previous coaching staff at Vanderbilt did.
Impressed by the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Smith throughout spring workouts and during preseason camp, Franklin on Monday named Smith his starting quarterback for the Commodores’ season opener against Elon on Saturday.
The fifth-year senior from Prattville, Ala., was Vanderbilt’s starter the last two years.
“You’re talking about a guy I would recruit every year in terms of physical skills,” Franklin said at his weekly press conference. “I have coached in the NFL. I have seen what NFL teams have drafted. There are a lot of teams that would love to have a quarterback like Larry Smith in terms of physical skills.
I think [quarterbacks coach] Ricky Rahne, [offensive coordinator] John Donovan and our entire staff have done a great job developing him.”
Smith was the choice over junior college transfer Jordan Rodgers, who Franklin said was “put at a little bit of a disadvantage” because he missed all of spring practices as he recovered from shoulder surgery. True freshman Josh Grady was named the third-string quarterback.
Smith often has been the scapegoat for Vanderbilt’s offensive woes the last two years. He is just 5-16 as a starter, which dates back to leading the Commodores to a victory in the Music City Bowl in 2008. He has a career completion percentage of 47.6 and has more interceptions (13) than touchdown passes (11).
With Franklin’s new multiple formation offense, however, Smith is confident this fall will be different.
“We’ll put up more points, execute on all phases, and just go out there and make more plays this year,” Smith said. “This is the most I’ve learned this offseason, just getting a better understanding of the game of football, being a better student of the game. I am real excited. I am eager to go out there and play for this coaching staff. ... Everyone has taken this offseason more seriously than they have in the past.”
Smith was voted by the players as one of five captains, along with linebacker Chris Marve, cornerback Casey Hayward, right tackle Kyle Fischer and placekicker Carey Spear.
“Larry is still the same guy,” Marve said. “He has always been hungry. He always had swagger to him, always directed the offense, always controlled the huddle. He is the same guy — but he is just a senior and a captain now. He just has more on his shoulders now.”
• Stacy gets nod: Last year’s starting running back Warren Norman missed all of the spring and was limited during most of preseason camp as he continued to recover from knee surgery. Because of that, junior Zac Stacy received more repetitions with the first-team offense.
Stacy took advantage of the increased workload and was named the starter at running back.
He rushed for 809 yards the last two years but largely played behind Norman, who rushed for 1,242 yards. Norman, a junior, was named the SEC’s Freshman of the Year in 2009 when he set the conference record for all-purpose yards by a freshman (1,941 yards).
“I think Warren is going to be a big focus of what we’re doing,” Franklin said. “I think Zac Stacy has had a great camp. I think Warren will [take on] a bigger role as this season goes, not only as a running back but also as a [kickoff] returner. But just like [Jordan] Rodgers, he wasn’t able to go into the spring that much. He has worked his way back into the rotation. Our doctors and trainers are very, very confident that he will be ready to play on Saturday.
"We’re just going to be smart as coaches and we’re going to play the guys we have to [in order] to be successful.”
• Play-calling: Offensive coordinator John Donovan will call the plays against Elon.
Franklin, a former offensive coordinator at Maryland and Kansas State, said he is “not sure if that will go the entire season.”
Donovan spent the last six years at Maryland primarily coaching the running backs, which he also does at Vanderbilt. He did call the plays during Maryland’s 51-20 Military Bowl Victory over East Carolina last season after Franklin had left his post to come to Vanderbilt.
Franklin said it was hard for him to relinquish the responsibility but says he needs to be more of a CEO at Vanderbilt.
“That doesn’t mean that I will not call plays during the game and that I haven’t been involved in the entire gameplan,” Franklin said. “But John will be the one to call it on a day-to-day basis. We’ll see how that goes. I am very, very confident in him.”
• Depth chart: Along with Smith and Stacy, wide receivers Jordan Matthews, Jonathan Krause and Udom Umoh will be a part of the first-team offense. Brandon Barden is the starting tight end. Ryan Seymour (left tackle), Jabo Burrow (left guard), Wesley Johnson (center), Mylon Brown (right guard) and Kyle Fischer (right tackle) make up the offensive line. Fullback Fitz Lassing also will be in the backfield when the Commodores need another run blocker.
Defensive ends Tim Fugger and Johnell Thomas, and defensive tackles Rob Lohr and Johnell Thomas will anchor the defense up front. One of last year’s captains, redshirt senior defensive tackle T.J. Greenstone, is listed as a backup as the Commodores plan to rotate several bodies in at the defensive line.
Chris Marve is the starting middle linebacker and will be bolstered on the outside by Chase Garnham and Tristan Strong. All-SEC cornerback Casey Hayward anchors the secondary, which includes cornerback Trey Wilson, free safety Kenny Ladler and strong safety Sean Richardson.
Backup strong safety Eric Samuels will return kickoffs and John Cole will handle punt returns. Richard Kent returns as the punter. Sophomore Carey Spear takes over the kicking duties from redshirt junior Ryan Fowler, who was an SEC All-Freshman selection in 2009.
Spear performed the kickoffs last year and nearly 40 percent were not returned. Franklin said Spear was aggressive in the weight room during the offseason.
“It wouldn’t surprise me when he kicks the ball off, if he is not going to be the first guy down [the field],” Franklin said. “We’re going to have the mentality around here — with our quarterbacks, kickers and everything — we are going to play with all 11. All 11 guys are going to be football players. I think he has really embraced that. He views himself as an athlete.”