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August 1, 2013

SEC FOOTBALL: Vandy, Franklin trying to handle success

NASHVILLE — James Franklin is changing nothing in his message going into his third season at Vanderbilt, no matter the expectations for a team with the Southeastern Conference's longest winning streak and the Commodores' best season in nearly a century.

"This team hasn't achieved anything," Franklin said Thursday. "That's going to be our focus."

That approach certainly has worked with Franklin winning more games in his first two seasons than any Vanderbilt coach since 1904-05. The Commodores open fall practice with 17 starters back from a team that went 9-4 in 2012, won the Music City Bowl and finished ranked No. 23 in the final poll for the first time in decades.

Franklin and Vanderbilt have been able to feed off the adversity of being seen as the SEC's also-ran, the popular team for homecoming. The coach knows he's facing a bit of a different challenge after going 15-11 since he arrived on campus, earning a second straight contract extension. The Commodores also help open the season hosting Mississippi on Aug. 29.

"Right now everybody's patting them on the back and telling them how wonderful they are, and when we arrived it could not be more negative," Franklin said. "We have to make sure we keep that mentality, that fighter's mentality."

Franklin even stopped to point at the word "CHIP" on his right shoulder. Every coach and player at Vanderbilt has had a similar shirt to wear over the past couple years. It's his way of stoking passion and excitement from both his assistants and the Commodores to continue building on their success.

"I don't think that there's any doubt that they've tasted a little success and they want more of it," Franklin said. "But that's what we've got to make sure of, we've got to make sure that we have that same chip and that same drive."

The Commodores have to replace quarterback Jordan Rodgers and the school's all-time leading rusher in Zac Stacy. Senior Austyn Carta-Samuels, who started at Wyoming before transferring to Vanderbilt, is expected to start, and he will be helped by the best receiving duo in the SEC in Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd.

The defense that ranked was in the top 10 against the pass in 2012 returns seven starters including cornerback Andre Hal, and Vandy also has the preseason All-SEC kicker in Carey Spear.

Franklin said he also sees a difference just by looking at his players. He credits strength coach Dwight Galt with pushing the Commodores into working hard so that they are in physical condition year-round now. Franklin said the offensive line, which returns four starters led by Wesley Johnson, is dramatically bigger and he didn't even recognize the new muscles on defensive end Caleb Azubike.

"I don't know how he does it," Franklin said of Galt.

Police still are investigating an incident that led to four players being dismissed June 29.

The sex crimes unit of the Metro Nashville Police are involved in the investigation, which included evidence being sent to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation crime lab. Defensive back Brandon Banks, safety Cory Batey, receiver Jaborian "Tip" McKenzie and tight end Brandon Vandenburg are no longer on the team, though losing Vandenburg likely hurts the most with the junior college transfer expected to play early.

Franklin said the Commodores generally are two or three players deep at each position.

"We've never had that before," Franklin said.

Seniors who went through a 2-10 season before Franklin was hired should help reinforce their coach's message. Matthews, who decided to return to Vandy instead of enter the NFL draft, said he feels like a freshman every day because of the excitement around this program.

"Things that happened in the past don't matter anymore, and essentially this league is what have you done for me lately," Matthews said. "That's the way I look at it. It's not about each game. It's about going out each day."

Senior defensive end Walker May takes the attitude that the Commodores still have to prove themselves against opponents with years of winning tradition, and he said he's felt players looking down on Vanderbilt.

"We still have the chip, and it's still bigger and we're still disrespected in the SEC, looked at as one of the bottom teams and everything," May said. "Yeah, it's still there."

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