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October 18, 2012

Behind Enemy Lines: Opponent Q&A with Vanderbilt beat writer Jeff Lockridge

These aren’t your father’s Commodores. Vanderbilt has performed self-surgery on the program behind second-year coach James Franklin, and new-look Vandy hosts Auburn this Saturday in Nashville. Jeff Lockridge (@jefflockridge) of The Tennessean lends some insight on Auburn’s next opponent.

Aaron Brenner: Last week, we asked the Clarion-Ledger about how Ole Miss has gone about creating a culture of winning after a number of years getting beat up in the big, bad SEC. Same question, for you and Vanderbilt.

Jeff Lockridge: James Franklin’s methodology to creating a winning culture in his two years at Vandy has focused on a number of areas. But the most important area in Franklin’s mind – and I think he’s right on this – is changing the outlook of the program with recruits and their families when he’s having that conversation in their living rooms. Franklin and his young staff have made inroads with three-, four- and even five-star recruits that I’m guessing would never have considered Vandy before he got here. He’s using a message that’s been sold here for decades: get a great education, have a chance to play early, be a part of history turning this program around. But now there are more buyers because his high-energy, aggressive approach is resonating with some of these teenagers. Vandy currently has the No. 15 recruiting class nationally for 2013, according to Rivals.com … when’s the last time anyone heard that?

Aside from the culture change that had to happen in the locker room with current players after consecutive two-win seasons in 2009 and ’10, the other aspects of creating a winning vibe have focused on selling the product a beaten-down fan base and a small student population that has rarely filled its section of seats in the SEC’s smallest stadium through the years. Progress has been made on that front, but there is still work to be done.

Brenner: Did nearly knocking off South Carolina in the season opener, on primetime TV Thursday night, set the tone at all for this year?

Lockridge: Knocking off South Carolina would have set the tone. Nearly knocking off South Carolina did not. Vandy also nearly knocked off Northwestern the week after that and put a scare into Florida last week. But the team still sits at 2-4 overall and needs four wins in the second half of the season to get back to a bowl game. There’s no question strides have been made in terms of how competitive Vandy is, and can continue to be, against good teams since Franklin has come on board. But there have been enough close calls and fourth-quarter letdowns to where you can no longer call these losses tone-setters. The Commodores need to beat some top-tier programs before the next step can be taken. To be honest, that appears like a bigger obstacle this year than it was in 2011 because last year’s team seemed to possess a killer-instinct quality that the 2012 squad is struggling to replicate.

Brenner: Coach James Franklin doesn’t like moral victories. Even though Vandy’s got the third-toughest schedule in the country, Franklin was adamant “the only way to teach kids how to win is winning”. Do you agree, after seeing the ‘Dores get smoked by Georgia but play competitively with South Carolina and Florida?

Lockridge: Well, I can assure you Vandy’s fans felt a little better after the losses to South Carolina and Florida. The Georgia game was just ridiculous. There was really nothing to build on that night. At least in the other two SEC losses the Commodores did some positive things that could be used for encouragement in the locker room. So I guess the answer is yes and no. Yes, the best way to reach kids how to win is winning. Vandy figured out how to get things done down the stretch at Missouri, and that’s something fans haven’t seen a whole lot of here. But no, all losses are not created equal. They count the same, but some (S.C. and FLA) you can be encouraged and motivated by and others (UGA) can just be demoralizing.

Brenner: Auburn’s very young at a lot of positions, but so is Vanderbilt. How do you expect some of the freshmen on defense to continue developing into the second half of the season?

Lockridge: Three true freshmen are seeing reps for Vandy on defense: DE Caleb Azubike and LBs Darreon Herring and Jake Sealand. Those reps are going to continue to increase over the next six games, in part because of their promise and in part because Vandy is lacking production at some spots, specifically linebacker. The fact Vandy ranks dead last in the SEC in run defense speaks to that. Florida QB Jeff Driskel fooled the Commodores’ outside linebackers on the same read-option QB run a half-dozen times. But of those three, I think Azubike shows the most upside. He already has an SEC body and he’s getting better at finding ways to get into the backfield. And he needs to because Vandy’s sacks and QB pressure numbers are certainly not high enough to frighten anyone.

Brenner: Coaches and players don’t worry themselves with Las Vegas lines and spread. That’s for us in the media, and fans, to discuss. What do you make of the Commodores being favored by a touchdown, and do you foresee Vandy to play like they expect to prolong Auburn’s losing streak?

Lockridge: I would be willing to bet that most, if not all, of Vandy’s players have either seen where they are favored or figured it out based on Auburn’s record and the way the Tigers have played. Do I suspect that will give Vandy a shot of confidence? Yes. How can it not? I think you will see the Commodores play like they expect to win because I think they do. That said, I think both defenses should be concerned coming in. We’re looking at two bad run defenses, and in Auburn’s case, a pretty shaky pass defense as well. In terms of Vandy being favored by a touchdown, I think Vegas is factoring in the numerous questions and negatives surrounding Auburn more than anything else, in addition to the Tigers being on the road again.

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