The Commodores (3-3, 0-3 Southeastern Conference) are coming off the worst loss of coach James Franklin’s tenure, though losing 51-28 to No. 14 Missouri doesn’t look nearly as bad after the Tigers handed Georgia its first league loss.
Now Vanderbilt is preparing to host the battered and bruised 15th-ranked Bulldogs (4-2, 3-1) on Saturday, the first of three straight games against ranked SEC opponents. After Georgia, the Commodores hit the road to visit No. 7 Texas A&M with another open date before heading to No. 22 Florida.
Franklin said Monday that they studied a lot of tape and realized their offense is ahead of where it was this time a year ago. They also spent a lot of time recruiting during the open date and made some adjustments on defense to help a unit that has struggled with injuries and touchdowns.
“That’s where you have to be careful,” Franklin said. “You don’t want to reinvent the wheel over the bye week and you just want to tweak some things that are simple adjustments for you, but give a different appearance to the defense, and that’s all we are trying to do.”
Linebacker Chase Garnham has not played since getting hurt in the opener. But the Commodores are getting back outside linebacker Karl Butler, a senior who missed the past three games with an undisclosed injury.
Franklin said they also discussed whether to go ahead and play some freshmen at linebacker rather than redshirt them. Butler’s return helps postpone such a move for now.
“Based on the depth chart, you see now we haven’t really decided to go in that direction,” Franklin said. “We have some other things I think you’ll see on Saturday besides just having Karl Butler back. You’ll see some other things on Saturday we’re doing to address those issues as well.”
Vanderbilt posted some stingy defensive numbers last season and are struggling this season. The Commodores currently rank 58th giving up 390 yards a game, 64th in scoring defense and 84th in defensive pass efficiency. In SEC play, they have given up at least 35 points in losing each of their first three games this season.
Franklin said the responsibility always is on the coaches but he wants more sacks, pressures and tackles for loss from his defensive linemen. From his four seniors in the secondary, Franklin wants them to be more aggressive as well and create more turnovers that can help erase mistakes by the offense.
“I think we can play at a higher level, and that’ll help us at linebacker as well,” Franklin said.
Junior defensive end, and former Walton High School standout, Kyle Woestmann said he feels like they got a bit complacent that they could easily come out and handle opponents. Then they found themselves being pushed around.
“That’s not the way it is. I think our guys realize that after coming back to another tough SEC game and seeing what we really need to do and how hard we have to compete to play with big O linemen on the other side of the line of scrimmage,” Woestmann said.
The Commodores found themselves in a similar situation a year ago with a sluggish start, and they finished the season by winning their final seven games including their bowl game. They insist they feel ready to make a similar sprint, even if half of their final six opponents are ranked in the Top 25.
“We really just need to stay close as a team,” senior left tackle Wesley Johnson said. “We all realize that we have so many games left, we just need to finish strong like we have done in the past.”