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Vandy Seniors Set to Leave a Legacy

By Matt Smith
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To be a legitimate contender for the division championship, the Commodores must fare better against the league’s top teams. Of the team’s 13 wins over FBS opponents the past two seasons, none have come against teams that finished the regular season with a winning record.

While redshirting as a freshman offensive lineman at Vanderbilt in 2009, Wesley Johnson sat through an 0-8 SEC season. Johnson was left wondering if his class would be the one to turn around the struggling program.


“We always believed that we could be at the point at we’re at,” Johnson said, “but looking back on then, I think it’s pretty special [what we’ve achieved].”


Just four years later, the Vanderbilt record book has now been rewritten with accomplishments never before seen in Nashville. The 2012 Commodores won nine games for the first time since 1915. Their 15 combined wins 2011 and 2012 were the most in consecutive seasons since 1928 and 1929. Their five SEC wins were the most since 1935.


When it happened, you really don’t understand the implications of doing something like that,” said senior wide receiver Jordan Matthews. “Once we got done and had a little bit of time to reflect on it, it was like ‘wow, look how far we’ve come’.”


Much of the credit for all of those “first time since” statistics goes to third-year head coach James Franklin. Formerly an offensive coordinator at both Kansas State and Maryland, Franklin brought a much-needed swagger to a program that had been the perennial doormat of the SEC for most of the league’s 80-year existence.


“The biggest thing he’s brought is excitement and electricity every single day to the facility and to the Nashville community,” Matthews said. “Everybody else in our community and our team has raised their level of excitement.


For Matthews, who was selected as one of the two wide receivers on the media’s preseason All-SEC team, he experienced a coaching change immediately after arriving on campus as a freshman. Bobby Johnson abruptly resigned just months before the 2010 season, as offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell served as the interim coach for a second consecutive 2-10 season.


“I’ve seen both sides of it,” Matthews said. “As a freshman – 2-10, the bottom of the SEC, in the cellar – to where we are now, it’s crazy. It’s really exciting.”


Now, the Commodores have their sights set on a goal that not too long ago seemed laughable: an SEC East title.


“Our goals are always to win SEC championships,” Franklin said. “We believe that. I don’t know what other goals you set.”


To be a legitimate contender for the division championship, the Commodores must fare better against the league’s top teams. Of the team’s 13 wins over FBS opponents the past two seasons, none have come against teams that finished the regular season with a winning record.


Vanderbilt’s schedule within the SEC is daunting, with trips to Florida, South Carolina, Texas A&M and home games with Georgia and Ole Miss. The Rebels’ visit to Nashville opens the 2013 season on Thursday Aug. 29. It will be the second consecutive year the Commodores have opened on a Thursday, an opportunity that Franklin believes helps every aspect of the program.


“Our number one challenge is to change the perception of the way people see Vanderbilt,” Franklin said. “We’re going to have the country’s attention. When you do that, you have the opportunity to change people’s perception. It’s great for college football. It’s great for the SEC. I know it’s great for Vanderbilt.”


One position that has helped fuel the Commodores turnaround has been cornerback. With Casey Hayward in 2011 and Trey Wilson in both 2011 and 2012, Vanderbilt has been led by one of the SEC’s best cornerbacks. In both seasons, the Commodores finished in the top 10 in the nation in pass defense efficiency. With Hayward now with the NFL’s Green Bay Packers and Wilson with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Andre Hal is next line to take on some of the SEC’s best wideouts.


“[Hayward and Wilson] taught me how to be a student of the game. Watch film, know it before it comes,” Hal said of his two predecessors.


Hal is no stranger to making big plays, as his 36-yard interception return against Tennessee helped set up the go-ahead touchdown in what would turn into a rout of the Commodores’ in-state rival. The interception also produced an iconic image of then-Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley preparing to rip off his headset, which Hal used as his Twitter avatar.


“Coach Dooley recruited me when he was at Louisiana Tech, but seeing that picture, it was kind of funny seeing his face,” Hal said.


The three seniors hope to close their careers this fall as the most successful class in Vanderbilt history. While that doesn’t necessarily require a trip to Atlanta on the first Saturday of December, the players know they’ll leave in far better shape then when they arrived.


This isn’t your older brother’s Vanderbilt. While the best may be yet to come after they leave, the senior class has done things many thought were impossible when they first set foot on campus. With still one chapter left to write, that’s a legacy every college football player could only hope to leave behind.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.