NASHVILLE, Tenn. - The start of preseason camp is always a special day in the world of college football. After months of anticipating a new season, the first day of practice is always the true indicator that its just weeks away until bragging rights can be settled for another year, new rivalries made and new stars to emerge. Robbie Caldwell has experienced many first days of camp in his career, but this day was even more special to the South Carolina native because it was his very first as the new head coach of the Vanderbilt Commodores.
The energetic veteran coach was in uncharted territory for him, observing every position unit during the two-hour, 15-minute session at the John Rich Practice Complex, including the defensive units that he rarely got to see that closely during his tenure as the Commodores offensive line coach.
Caldwell also spent a good bit of time watching the Commodore offense as the team tries to produce better results than last season after reshuffling a number of responsibilities within the coaching staff.
"I thought it was great, I was excited," Caldwell said after the session. "All the young men were very upbeat and I thought we did some good things out there. I was stunned quite frankly [of being in head coach role]. I just kind of gravitated towards the end of the field where I used to go with the offensive linemen all the time, so it was a strange yet very pleasant feeling. It's great to watch these guys coach."
Practicing in only helmets, shirts and shorts due to NCAA requirements, the Commodores went through a series of position drills, offensive and defensive instruction, one-on-one, 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills. Vanderbilt also spent a good deal of focus on the special teams units during the late evening session. While a lot of the drills were similar to much of what the staff had done the previous eight years under the recently retired Bobby Johnson, Caldwell did make a few changes to the structure of the practice.
There were also a few changes with the offense, though most of those had been installed during the spring practice period.
"We've done a little, not that much you know," Caldwell said. "We've changed flex and a few different things we do for period wise, but not much is going to change. A lot of that was done in the spring and we're just trying to tweek it and make it better.
"We're not changing too much," Caldwell said of his new role as head coach. "I'm proud they've got faith in me to run it and I'm just proud to be around these young people. It's not about me, it's about us."
Coach Hand gets his first Commodore experience as well
Along with 27 new players in Commodore uniforms, there was also a fresh face calling out direction on Friday in newly appointed offensive line coach Herb Hand. The former Tulsa co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach was officially hired to the position earlier in the day, though he agreed in principle to join the staff two weeks ago.
A veteran offensive coach in his right, Hand spent a lot of his first day learning his new players along the offensive line and installing some of his own philosophies and techniques.
"I tell everybody we've upgraded the program greatly, replacing myself with him," Caldwell said of Hand. "He is a super teacher and great person and just the kind you want your child to be associated with. All of these guys are that way, and he just adds to the mix perfectly."
Hand inherits a unit that only has five experienced players among the group, with just three having any starting experience. It was also learned on Friday that senior guard Chris Aaron has not been medically cleared to return to the team, though the California native was in attendance for the practice. Redshirt freshman Justin Cabbagestalk was also not available for the first practice due to a nagging knee injury.
Under Armour All-American James Kittredge joined fellow freshmen Andrew Bridges, Grant Ramsay, Logan Stewart and Chase White as newcomers to the offensive line on Friday. Kittredge, who was an all-state selection as an offensive lineman for the high school national champion Don Bosco Ironmen last year, was originally slated to start off at defensive tackle.
Lassing also moves to offense
Freshman Fitz Lassing, a former three-way standout at nearby Montgomery Bell Academy, participated with the tight ends/H-backs on Friday. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound prospect had been projected as a possible linebacker for the Commodores when he signed with the program in February and was even listed at the position on the official roster that was released a few weeks ago.
However, the 2009 Division II Middle/East Region Player of the Year was known for his ability to play virtually anywhere on the field and his official position at Vanderbilt had yet to be determined.
Three-time NFL All-Pro center Kevin Mawae observed the Commodores first practice on Friday. The 16-year veteran of the Seattle Seahawks, New York Jets and most recently, Tennessee Titans, watched the Commodore offensive line throughout the practice and associated with other members of the Vanderbilt staff. Currently a free agent, Mawae is a eight-time pro bowler and was a member of the NFL's All-Decade team for the 2000's. He is also the current President of the NFL Player's Association.
. Vanderbilt welcomed four true freshmen receivers to the fold on Friday and all four showed signs of making an impact during the first practice. The 5-foot-11 Jonathan Krause made a number of tough catches during much of the session, running routes at various spots on the field. The 6-foot-4 Chris Boyd made a pair of tough catches as well near the sideline, while also making a diving catch across the middle. The 6-foot-3 Jordan Matthews turned a pair of short catches into significant gains during 11-on-11 drills and the speedy Trent Pruitt made a number of catches out of the slot including a catch that would've resulted in a long touchdown. A number of veteran Commodore receivers also made plays during the first session but many believe some if not all of the younger targets will need to contribute this fall.
. Redshirt freshman Wesley Tate returned to the running back corps after missing spring practice due to a foot injury. The 6-foot-2 Hendersonville native split reps with sophomores Warren Norman and Zac Stacy as well as senior Kennard Reeves. The Commodores hope to use all four extensively this fall.
. Sophomore linebacker Tristan Strong also returned to action after missing the last six games of the 2009 season and all of spring practice due to a ACL injury. The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Georgia native should compete for the weakside linebacker assignment this month. Sophomores Archibald Barnes, Dexter Daniels and DeAndre Jones are also vying for the assignment.
. Veteran linebacker Michael Garcia will not return for his fifth year of eligibility in 2010. The former preferred walk-on and Vanderbilt legacy graduated in the spring and is looking to attend graduate school elsewhere. The Jacksonville native played 17 games during his Commodore career, earning praise for his spirited play on special teams as well as contributing as a reserve linebacker. Garcia originally chose to walk-on at Vanderbilt over several lower level FBS division offers. His father Martin Garcia was a standout for the Commodores in the 1970's and a key member of the Peach Bowl team in 1974.