In years past, senior day at Vanderbilt has always been interesting because the redshirt juniors who are definitely graduating and leaving school are honored, and the ones who are probably staying with the team for another year are not.
James Franklin has changed this. On Saturday, every player who's on campus for his fourth year (or in the case of JC transfers like Jordan Rodgers, his second year) will be honored on senior day.
I love it. At this point, with three games remaining to be played and with the staff working on more big recruiting commitments, it would be impossible to know who's staying and who's not. Franklin said that some guys might be honored again next year "if they choose to do that," saying again that "they have the choice to do that."
I guarantee you he doesn't mean that every redshirt junior on scholarship will have the option of returning next year, though he worded it vaguely to avoid questions — and the media obliged by nodding like sheep and moving on to the next question.
This time last year, we honored only two redshirt juniors, Ryan van Rensburg and Tray Herndon, on senior day. Of the redshirt juniors not honored, only Jamie Graham eventually left the team, graduating and choosing to play out his last year of eligibility at UCLA, where he went to graduate school. The other seven (Barden, Fischer, Umoh, Marve, Fugger, Smith and Monahan) have been pillars of the team this season. Monahan, by the way, has since been granted another year of eligibility and is once again listed as a redshirt junior.
After Franklin arrived and signed his first class, we had 90 scholarships tied up, which meant we needed to part with five players. By the time preseason camp rolled around, we'd parted ways with:
• R-SR defensive back Jamie Graham, who graduated and went to UCLA.
• R-SO quarterback Charlie Goro, who transferred to South Dakota after apparently falling out of favor with Franklin who when asked about Goro's departure talked about his expectations for players on and off the field.
• R-SO offensive lineman Justin Cabbagestalk, with a career-ending injury
• SO offensive lineman James Kittredge, who was suspended and then transferred to Michigan State
• R-SO safety Jay Fullam, who transferred to the Air Force Academy to follow his dreams of becoming a fighter pilot.
Since then, two more players — redshirt freshmen Blake Southerland, a fullback, and Blake Gowder, a linebacker — have vanished from the roster. Southerland apparently suffered a career-ending injury but not sure about Gowder, other than it wasn't a good year to be named Blake and play for Vandy.
Which brings us to this year. We currently have 20 verbal commitments, if you count Wyoming transfer Austin Carta-Samuels, who's already enrolled in school. That means if nobody on our current roster left school early, we'd need to part with eight of this year's redshirt juniors.
Let's break the current class of redshirt juniors into groups to see where the eight bodies might come from:
SHOULD BE GONE
• PK Ryan Fowler: Sure, it's nice to have three scholarship kickers, but Carey Spear has hopefully worked out the kinks and can handle the kickoffs and placekicking next season. Plus, another all-purpose kicker, Colby Cooke, has verbally committed to the next signing class.
• WR John Cole: A tough player for us before his injury, if not a legitimate SEC receiver, but we'll be adding four-star Andre McDonald and local star Corey Batey to a solid rotation of Matthews/Boyd/Tate/Krause.
• RB Micah Powell: A special teams performer who'll be easily replaced.
• WR Akeem Dunham: A raw athlete who climbed to second team before injury.
• DE Dexter Daniels: Moved to end this year but has been relegated to special teams.
• DT Taylor Loftley: His fate was sealed when T.J. Greenstone was injured and the staff burned a redshirt off Barron Dixon to fill out the rotation.
SHOULD DEFINITELY STAY
• QB Jordan Rodgers: Duh
• OL Ryan Seymour: Duh
• DT Rob Lohr: Duh
• LB Archibald Barnes: A versatile linebacker who's been slow to develop, but with our shallow depth at linebacker will be needed next season.
• DT Colt Nichter: Has started every game this season.
WILL LIKELY RETURN
• DE Johnell Thomas: Even with five commitments at defensive end, many of those guys are going to take time to develop; Thomas is battle-tested and has had a solid season.
• LB Tristan Strong: A solid starter until his injury after the fourth game; will return for sure if he recovers.
• P Richard Kent: Should punt again next year, unless true frosh Colby Cooke takes his place, but there's word that Cooke may be a grayshirt.
FIGHTING FOR ANOTHER YEAR
• OL Josh Jelesky: A little used defensive end, he was a shoo-in to leave at the end of this season until a last-minute move to the O-line breathed new life into his collegiate career. Now he's a starter at guard.
• OL Caleb Welchans: The former starter has been strictly a backup this season despite a number of unforeseen openings on the offensive line. He could be replaced as a backup by a redshirt freshman like James Lewis or Jake Bernstein, though it would be ideal to keep a big body with his experience on the roster.
• LB DeAndre Jones: He could step into the middle backer job vacated by Chris Marve, especially if true freshman Jacob Sealand, who plans to enroll in January, isn't ready. Still, if you take away the injury to Tristan Strong, so far he's been the least important of the four redshirt junior linebackers.
• LB Al Owens: He started the season as the most likely redshirt junior to be four and done, but he's starting right now in place of Chase Garnham. His fate could depend on the development of true freshmen Darreon Herring and Stephen Weatherly, and whether Barnes, Jones or Strong leave early.
• TE Austin Monahan: He turns 24 at the end of this season, and next season would be his sixth in black and gold. Vandy has a bunch of tight ends (Lassing, van der Wal, Johnston, Scheu and Bryant) but nobody with Monahan's experience. It'll likely be his call.
Of course, with the way Franklin finishes strong in recruiting, we could add another five players to our recruiting class. If that happens, we'll have to cut deep into our redshirt juniors or experience some turnover among underclassmen and juniors.
• R-FR offensive lineman Grant Ramsay: He's the only one of five offensive linemen from the signing class of 2010 not to play in a game, and he's buried beneath true freshmen Pulley and Townsend on the depth chart.
• R-FR receiver Trent Pruitt: A John Cole clone, he was played special teams the first three games. Not sure if he's injured, but he doesn't look like an SEC-caliber receiver, especially compared to our latest recruits.
• R-FR defensive end Thomas Ryan: He's played in only one game this season, in mop-up duty, and it doesn't look any better with five ends planning to commit in February. He'll likely try a new position in the spring, either DT, OG or even TE.
• R-SO receiver Brady Brown: Once an impressive recruit from Texas, he's played once in three years, and that was during his redshirt year! His future doesn't look bright.
I'm not saying Franklin kicks these guys off the team. He first moves them to another position to give them another chance and then if they see no playing time in sight and want to play at a lower level, maybe they transfer.
And there's always the guys who fail out of school or suffer injuries. We won't try to predict that.
Guys with remaining eligibility also being honored on Saturday: Jabo Burrow, who suffered a career-ending injury, and three walk-ons (Jeff Gendelman, Bobby Jewell and Jamison Sackey).
It's obvious why all the redshirt juniors will be honored on Saturday: Because they're going to have to compete in the spring in order to stay another year. As Franklin said on signing day, he wants to create the most competitive environment in the nation where nobody's job is safe. He's well on his way to doing just that.