Vanderbilt football runs from opportunity to run in spring game

Friday, April 13, 2012 at 12:10pm

After breaking the school's single-season rushing record, Zac Stacy is a proven commodity for Vanderbilt.

Just don’t expect to see much of the running back at Saturday’s Black & Gold Spring Game.

“We’re going to throw it. We’re going to chuck it,” offensive coordinator John Donovan said after Thursday’s practice. “We’re not going to give him a lot.”

Like it has been throughout the 14 spring practices, the focus of the spring game (6 p.m., Vanderbilt Stadium) will be on the aerial assault. With a year of coach James Franklin’s multiple set offense under their belts, Commodores quarterbacks and wide receivers continue to work on developing into more consistent threats.

In 2010, Vanderbilt averaged 159.4 passing yards, which ranked 105th out of 120 FBS teams.

Last year, the Commodores improved slightly with an average of 174.6 passing yards. That moved them up to 97th in the nation. They also saw an increase in passing touchdowns (11 to 15) and a decrease in interceptions (11 to six).

Still, at times, Franklin, a former quarterback, became annoyed at the inability to move the ball through the air. He replaced two-year starter and then-senior Larry Smith with Jordan Rodgers midway through the season, only to pull Rodgers for Smith in the Liberty Bowl. He also tinkered with his wide receiving corps, moving running back Wesley Tate to the slot — Tate is now back at running back — and asking for more production out of Jordan Matthews, Chris Boyd and Jonathan Krause.

His spring practices have reflected his desire for more big plays through the air.

“We’ve made a major commitment,” Franklin said. “I think we’ve proven we can run the ball and that doesn’t mean we’ve got to stop working on it. We’ve got to continue to get better, don’t get me wrong, but I just felt like this spring we wanted to be 70-30 [pass/run]. That has allowed us to really put a focus on it.

"We’re getting better at things, not everything right now. I think that is going to help us in the long run. We went into the spring saying we want to get better at these things and we have.”

Rodgers, the lone returner among the quarterbacks, agreed with his second-year head coach that the difference is noticeable.

“I think we came a long way. I think we’re almost where we need to be in the passing game,” he said. “From here on out, after the spring game, it will be players taking control of that. So it is going to be real important for me to get a good program going with our guys and just work on timing, quick passing game stuff. Though we’ve come a long way, we’ve got a long way to go. But I think we’ve made strides this spring.”

Discussion on the importance of the spring game is mixed.

Rodgers sees it as just another scrimmage while Matthews says it offers another opportunity to compete. With the squad split — most of the first-team offense and defense is on the Black team — and just eight offensive linemen who will play both ways, one might not want to read too much into the final product. 

Franklin, however, cautions against letting up during or after the contest.

“What they can’t do is once summer starts is to go back to taking practice drops,” he said. “You’ve got to take game-speed drops, game-speed routes. We’ve got to fly around all summer like we’re going to play against South Carolina [in the season opener on Aug. 30].”

• Tape delay: Saturday’s game will be televised on tape delay at 5 p.m. Sunday on Comcast Sports Southeast. A live broadcast of the game, which is free to the public and features fireworks afterwards, will air on ESPN3.com.

Matt Stewart will handle the play-by-play duties and former Commodore Corey Chavous will offer color commentary.

Chavous played cornerback at Vanderbilt from 1994-97 before 11 years in the NFL. He spent Thursday sitting in on coaches’ meetings and watching practice.

“Just a tremendous overall approach and attention to detail, very meticulous,” Chavous said. “The energy level is incredible. I just couldn’t be more floored by the job Coach Franklin’s done and the staff and the team. Just buying into everything and starting something here that I believe is going to be around for a long time.”