NASHVILLE, Tenn.- An aggressive and opportunistic defense was the story of the day in Vanderbilt's final scrimmage inside Vanderbilt Stadium on Saturday.
Commodore defenders created several turnovers and stops for negative yardage during the 54-play scrimmage, allowing just two touchdowns while scoring one of its own with a 35-yard fumble return for a touchdown by senior linebacker Archibald Barnes.
"I thought the defense played very well today. They were consistent, they were aggressive, and made plays," said head coach James Franklin following the practice. "They got the momentum and the offense wasn't able to get it back. So from a defensive perspective, I thought it was really positive. Even at the end there, I went to the No.2 defense versus the No.1 offense. I wanted to see the offense move the ball down the field after starting, backed up at their own 5-yard line, but the defense stepped up and played well again."
The defense controlled the tempo early on, forcing the Commodore offense into consecutive short possessions. The unit would bend at times, allowing first downs, but seemed to rally during each drive, especially with their backs against the wall.
Barnes in particular had a strong day. In addition to the touchdown score, the veteran also picked off a tipped pass at the line by defensive lineman Conor Hart later in the scrimmage, and recovered another fumble forced by defensive end Walker May. Barnes also registered a few tackles including two stops that resulted in little or no gain.
"It's the same thing as last year, the interceptions he had. He has such great length that he is able to make big plays," Franklin said of Barnes. "He's a senior and he's been playing a lot, and has really good instincts. He's now finally getting stronger, his body has changed dramatically since we've been here. I've been very pleased with him. I think if he has a great summer, he could have a really good year for us."
Barnes enjoyed a breakout season in 2011, starting nine games and ranking fourth in the team with 59 total tackles. The German born standout by way of Florida also registered 4.5 tackles for loss, two sacks and created five turnovers including three forced fumbles and two interceptions. His 100-yard interception return for a touchdown against Tennessee set a record for longest turnover returned for a score in the Commodores 120-year history.
Other defensive stars on Saturday included defensive tackles Colt Nichter and Vince Taylor, defensive ends Walker May and Kyle Woestmann, and defensive backs Andre Hal and Andrew Williamson.
Nichter and Taylor made it virtually impossible for VU to run the ball or convert on the long passing plays during a portion of the practice. Nichter was credited with a sack while Taylor's penetration caused a number of tackles resulting in lost yardage.
May brought constant pressure from the edge, causing a few rushed throws while Woestmann made two sacks including one after trailing behind the Commodore quarterback.
Hal continued his strong spring with a few pass breakups and sound coverage while Williamson brought the heat on a few tackles against the run.
All was not completely lost on the offense during the day. Vanderbilt's quarterbacks, led by senior Jordan Rodgers, completed 14-of-26 passes for 155 yards and running back Zac Stacy scored from 23 yards out on his only carry during the scrimmage. Fellow back Wesley Tate would add another touchdown during a period devoted to goal line situations.
Rodgers did throw the scrimmage's only official interception and completed just 6-of-13 passes for 66 yards. Junior Austyn Carta-Samuels completed 3-of-7 for 33 yards. Freshman Patton Robinette had the best statistical day, completing 5-of-6 attempts for 56 yards.
Franklin felt optimistic about the offense's performance, citing a lack of numbers along the line of scrimmage as a realistic cause for some of the unit's shortcomings. He also explained why Stacy was held out of action for most of the day.
"One of the issues we have on offense, and it's not an excuse, just a reality, is that we have such poor depth on the offensive line right now. Basically at least two or three of our No.1 offensive line is going with both groups and rotating through, so that is what it is and we have to overcome it. We've got to have some guys step up for us.
"I also limited Zac Stacy a little bit today because I think that sometimes the offense is a little bit too dependent on Zac and I want them to be able to move the ball without him in there sometimes too."
Tight ends Kris Kentera and Dillon van der Wal provided much of the offense's yardage through the air on the day, while receivers Chris Boyd and Jacquese Kirk caught numerous passes as well.
Kentera was on the receiving end of two of the day's biggest pass plays, while van der Wal caught multiple passes that resulted in first downs. Boyd and Kirk also registered multiple first down catches.
Vanderbilt finished off the day with a series of field goal attempts at the South end zone. Senior Ryan Fowler converted on 4-of-5 attempts while junior Carey Spear was a perfect 4-for-4.
The Commodores will return to the practice field on Tuesday for the team's final week of spring ball. Vanderbilt will stage two full sessions on Tuesday and Thursday, starting around 4:30 p.m. The team will then conduct a walk-through session on Friday night in preparation for next Saturday's Black and Gold Spring Football game.
Teams will be drafted later in the week. Due to low numbers at certain positions, some units may have to play for both the Black and Gold squads. Franklin has already announced that the offensive line will have to play for both teams.
The event is the culmination of the spring ball practice period, and Franklin hopes to see an even bigger crowd than last year's game.
"I'm excited. I hope everybody comes out. It should be a great environment," Franklin said. "It's an evening game, we're going to have a baseball game and then after that, come over to the stadium. We're going to have fireworks after the game and we're going to try to make it as much as a game-like situation as we possibly can. The O-Line will have to be run back and forth, but it's going to be a good opportunity to show the next step we're taking as a program. It goes along with recruiting, the fan base, the commitment from the administration, everything, so I'm really pumped about it."
The Black and Gold game kicks off at 6 p.m. next Saturday. Tailgating will begin at noon or earlier and free parking will be available around the stadium and outlining areas.
The Vanderbilt baseball team will host Auburn at Hawkins Field at 2 p.m., prior to the football game. Commodore fans are encouraged to attend both.
Several other pre-game events will be available, including some family events inside the stadium, two hours prior to kick-off.
Vanderbilt staged its first official spring game in 10 years last spring, with the Black claiming a 19-7 victory over the Gold.