NASHVILLE, Tenn.- The Vanderbilt football program kicked off its first spring practice period under new Commodore head coach James Franklin on Friday night and while the new face of the program felt excited for the opening session, he also expressed the desire to see more energy from a squad that's trying to rebound from back-to-back 2-10 seasons.
"I'm excited because we've got a lot to learn, we really don't understand how to practice yet at the tempo I would expect us to practice at," Franklin said following the two-hour session. "There was a lot of correctable mistakes, jumping offsides, dropped balls, balls on the ground, fumbles on the exchange, not pursuing to the ball on defense the way I think we should pursue the ball, so to me, that's a positive.
"They are all things that we can coach and are very, very correctable mistakes. It's the first day, they're starting to figure out how we're going to do things here.
"Ask me tomorrow, I'll have a better idea. Did we take the next step? As long as we improve every single day, then we'll be where we need to be."
Per NCAA practice regulations, the Commodores practiced in shirts, shorts and helmets and conducted a series of 7-on-7 drills, play recognition and individual position drills. The group also went through a series of conditioning drills after the session.
Franklin said the staff wants to practice at a high tempo on both sides of the ball and will simulate an all out approach through each practice session.
"The little things like instead of a 40 second clock, where we have a clock during every single period in practice, instead of having a 40 second clock, we go 35 seconds," Franklin said. "I want it faster than what the game would be and they have to run back and get set [on offense].
"Then on defense, I'm going to hold the whistle until I see everybody running. We're going to run to the ball, we're going to pursue the ball. You know, last year, we gave up too many big plays and one of the easiest ways to correct that is to get all 11 guys on the field running to the ball. Good things will happen when you do that.
"A lot of times, I'm going to watch the ball on the backside on defense and see if he's running to the ball. If he's going hard and everybody else is, I'm going to blow the whistle quick. If I feel like someone's not going as hard, I'm going to hold it.
"If I think the offense had a chance to break the play and a chance to score, then I'm going to hold the whistle to see if everybody can pursue the ball, see if they can break a big one.
"We are going to make big plays on offense, defense and special teams through sacks, through turnovers, through long runs, through touchdown passes to kickoff returns to block kicks, we're going to be a big play offense, defense and special teams. That's what we're emphasizing.
"If they're not running hard then they are being selfish and letting the team down, so go out. I have no problem if you go hard five plays and you can't do seven, tap out and get somebody else in there that's fresh. When you go, you're in there going full speed."
Franklin said the energy level was encouraging for the most part during the first practice but it will need to pick up as spring ball progresses.
"I think they understand and the coaching staff as a whole, the whole energy is contagious, they know we're not going to allow them to fail. We're going to put them in position to be successful and push them extremely hard in a positive manner. We're going to have fun doing it and we're going to find a way to get some Ws.
"So I think the players are embracing what we're doing, I think they've bought in, it's just now figuring out how to do it and learning how to push themselves.
"It's no different than the morning workouts. Morning workouts didn't start out great but by the end, they were pretty impressive and it's going to be the same way during spring ball. We just have to have a sense of urgency and speed up the maturation process."
Much of the talk this offseason has been about improving the play at quarterback. The Commodores have struggled for the past four years in terms of the passing the ball, finishing among the nation's worst in passing yardage.
Senior Larry Smith, junior Jordan Rodgers and sophomore Charlie Goro participated in a series of new drills for the position early in the practice and continued to work on execution as the 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 periods progressed.
"Playing quarterback is kind of like being a coach, it's a lifestyle," Franklin said. "You've got to commit to it from the time you wake up in the morning until the time you go to bed, you're the quarterback. Everybody on campus knows you're the quarterback, everybody out on town knows you're the quarterback, on the field, it's just a lifestyle.
"We've had some success with quarterbacks being around guys like Donovan McNabb, Brett Favre, Josh Freeman and then Danny O'Brien, so we've been around some pretty good quarterbacks. I think we know how to train them, I think we know how to develop them and I think we know how to recruit them. So those guys are going to dramatically improve this year, I can guarantee that."
There were a few highlights during the day, despite being a non-contact practice, especially from the receiving position.
Redshirt freshman Chris Boyd had the catch of the day, making a tough grab on a throw down the sidelines despite good coverage from sophomore corner Andre Hal and sophomore safety Karl Butler. The play would've likely resulted in a long touchdown score.
Sophomore Jordan Matthews also caught a pass over the top of the defense and broke away from the coverage for another likely touchdown while redshirt freshman Trent Pruitt turned a short catch into a long run down the heart of the defense.
Veteran receiver John Cole also made a touch catch through a number of Vanderbilt defenders and senior tight end Brandon Barden used an impressive stiff arm against a Commodore linebacker following a short catch to turn it into a big gain.
Junior Zac Stacy and sophomore Wesley Tate also showed good vision at running back and separated from defenders for long gains during the non-contact 11-on-11 periods.
A few future Commodores were on hand for the practice including Brentwood Academy corner Derek King, Arlington High offensive tackle James Lewis and Hendersonville High lineman Joe Townsend. Former Commodore and current Tennessee Titan Jovan Haye and recent graduate John Stokes were also in attendance during the practice period.
Vanderbilt will return to the John Rich Practice Complex on Saturday for a morning session, starting at 11:15 a.m. The Commodores will once again don just shirts and shorts for the session due to NCAA rules. Vanderbilt's first full pad practice will likely take place late next week.
For a special insider's report of the Commodores first session, jump inside the War Room for the extended practice report and observations.