As Vanderbilt’s sixth practice session of the spring came to a close on Tuesday, Carey Spear readied himself to kick the day’s final field goal. Standing more than 50 yards from the goal posts, Spear, coming off his first full season as the Commodores’ No. 1 placekicker, loosened up as his teammates huddled around him, waiting for a chance to cheer.
Spear drove his foot through the ball, sending it hurdling through the air toward its target. His teammates’ yelling and cheering swelled, the possibility of a made kick a sign of successes to come.
Suddenly, the ball veered left, sailing wide of the goal post. Five minutes later, the Vanderbilt football team, fresh off a bowl win and looking forward to a chance to win another one, ran wind sprints to make up for Spear’s missed kick, alternatively racing towards the goal line and midfield.
It’s the kind of competitive, high-stakes situation head coach James Franklin has made a point of injecting into nearly every practice of his Vanderbilt tenure. In the opening days of spring football, where the quality of play matches the chilly March weather — unpleasant, but foreshadowing sunnier days — players and coaches brim with passion as they prepare themselves for a far-off game day with so much work left to be done.
“When you measure the aggressiveness, the energy level, the team, at this point, looks as good, if not better, than it did at this point last year,” said athletic director David Williams, watching from the sidelines.
“We’re more confident, more consistent because this is our third year doing it,” said Franklin.
Ask Franklin what his focus is as the team presses on, and he’ll give you the company line: everything.
“We’re trying to get better in all areas at this point,” he said. “We want to create legitimate depth.”
Nowhere is that process more urgent than at quarterback, where the question of who will get the ball to explosive wideouts Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd has a clearer answer than Franklin would prefer at this point in the spring.
“Right now, they aren’t as competitive as I’d like them to be,” Franklin said. “Austyn (Carta-Samuels) is doing some really nice things. There’s a fairly good gap between him and the next guy.”
The group vying to be that next guy comprises redshirt freshman Patton Robinette, redshirt sophomore Josh Grady, who switched back to his natural position from wide receiver at the start of the spring, and freshman Johnny McCrary.
“I feel extremely confident,” said Carta-Samuels, a redshirt senior who transferred from Wyoming in 2011. “I’ve started 25 college football games. I’d love to start 37 or 38.”
Still, this is the time of year where position battles are started, not decided, and where individual assignments — rather than full-blown game plans — are drilled and assessed. In other words, we’re still a long way from August, but you wouldn’t know it given the players’ excitement as Spear lined up for his kick, or by all their goading and nudging as they finished up their sprints.
“They’re playing out there like they’re really looking forward to the season,” Williams said.
“We know we can win any game on our schedule this year,” Carta-Samuels said. “You couldn’t imagine the difference that makes in practice. The guys are really excited. They know the sky’s the limit for us.”