Vanderbilt’s nine seniors are in a league of their own.
When they step onto the field on New Year’s Eve for the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, they’ll make school history. They are the only players to compete in two bowls as the Commodores have participated in just five.
Of course, their four — or, in some cases, five — years also have been filled with disappointment. They witnessed the program reach one of its lowest points, with consecutive 2-10 seasons. They also played for three head coaches in three years.
“I really parallel my experience at Vanderbilt to life,” linebacker Chris Marve said on Wednesday after one of the first bowl practices. “You have ups. You have downs. But as long as you’re resilient and you’re determined to succeed, you are going to be successful.”
When the coach they came to play for, Bobby Johnson, abruptly resigned just weeks before the 2010 season, there wasn’t much turnover on the staff. Offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell took over and pretty much all of the same faces stayed on board. When Caldwell was forced out, however, it meant the players would have to adjust to a new coach, a new staff with new systems and new personalities.
That can be tough on anybody, especially for seniors who might be concerned that their starting jobs or playing time could be threatened with a new coach bringing in his recruits.
“We have always been really close, us nine seniors, and regardless who they brought in, we were going to give it our all,” defensive end Tim Fugger said. “Coach [James] Franklin has definitely pushed us harder than we ever have been or ever could have imagined. It has definitely paid off.”
The seniors have been very much a part of the 2011 success — right from the start.
The undisputed defensive leader, Marve made the team’s first tackle of the season against Elon. He made 83 more after that and led the team.
One of four senior captains, he ranks ninth all-time in school history with 390 tackles.
Fellow seniors, safety Sean Richardson and cornerback Casey Hayward, are right behind him this season with 58 and 54 tackles, respectively. Hayward, another captain, has a team-high five interceptions and is tied for second all-time in school history with 13 picks. Fugger leads the squad with 6.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss.
Offensively, captain Kyle Fischer has been a staple at tackle, opening up holes for 1,000-yard rusher Zac Stacy and protecting quarterback Jordan Rodgers.
For some, though, their final college season included bumps.
Last year’s leading receiver, tight end Brandon Barden missed two games because of an ankle injury. With more weapons at wideout, passes his way were less frequent. He caught 13 for 223 yards — down from 34 receptions and 425 yards the year before.
Still, what probably will stick out to him is his 73-yard catch and run against Wake Forest. The 6-foot-5, 245-pounder surprised many when he hurdled a defender and raced to the end zone for his first touchdown of the season.
“When I caught it and I saw the open field, I was like, ‘I have to score.’ That was the only thing on my mind — scoring,” Barden said after the game. “I’ve always jumped and fell on my face ... so I jumped him and from there on I was getting in the end zone no matter.”
Wide receiver Udom Umoh and defensive tackle T.J. Greenstone lost their starting jobs. Umoh did maintain a presence on special teams, returning five punts. Arguably his biggest contribution came against Georgia when he blocked a punt with seven seconds left, giving the Commodores’ two chances —albeit unsuccessful — to win the game.
A three-year starter, who made his first start in the Music City Bowl in 2008, Larry Smith’s career won’t end as he had hoped. The quarterback continually struggled with inconsistency and lost his starting job after the Georgia game.
The team captain kept a positive attitude through it all, staying supportive of his teammates. When he threw a 45-yard touchdown pass — after a lateral from Rodgers — against Wake Forest in the regular-season finale two weeks ago, it was obvious how much it meant to him. The fifth-year senior unleashed that signature toothy smile.
“He has been unbelievable,” Franklin said. “His focus is what is best for the team and he has been unbelievable, supportive team member and supportive of Jordan and our whole offense all year long. I’m really proud of him.”
After 15 years as an assistant, Franklin could have walked into his first head coaching job and wiped the slate clean and played young. Instead, he realized he had talented upperclassmen, especially in the senior class.
He embraced those nine players, even with the little things — insisting all nine be on the front of the media guide. As they end their careers in historic fashion, he credits them for helping build what he hopes is a dramatic turnaround.
“It is one thing, walking into somewhere else that has already established something that you are just another guy that has showed up,” Franklin said. “These seniors are going to be remembered as the group that laid the foundation for years to come and really have taught these other guys how to compete and how to persevere.”