After suiting up the last several seasons for the red and gray, Barrett Gouger is now wearing the black and gold.
The former Baylor School left tackle reported to Vanderbilt University more than a month ago for summer workouts, and he and his new teammates are putting in the hours with hopes of making history during the upcoming football season. The Commodores never have been to consecutive bowl games, and this year's team will be tested from the start with a leadoff date against visiting South Carolina on Aug. 30.
The first matchup of Southeastern Conference teams in the expanded 14-team league will be televised by ESPN.
"It's definitely on everyone's mind, and not just the players and the staff," Gouger said. "Everyone has heard about this game and is interested in watching it, and we're getting motivated, but we're not just working hard for that game. We're working hard for all of them."
Vanderbilt went a surprising 6-6 in coach James Franklin's debut season before losing to Cincinnati in the Liberty Bowl. The Commodores were a hard-luck 2-6 in league games, shredding the depleted duo of Ole Miss and Kentucky and coming up just short against Arkansas, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.
Quarterback Jordan Rodgers, running back Zac Stacy and receiver Jordan Matthews return along with four starters from the offensive line, but Franklin came out of spring practice with a focus on the situation up front.
"The lack of depth really made it challenging for us to practice," he said. "We basically only had seven healthy offensive linemen, but the positive is that some of the guys we're going to have to depend on next year, whether starters or legitimate No. 2s, got a bunch of reps this spring. They got a chance to really develop by taking reps with the No. 1s, so I think that's a real positive.
"Once we get Ryan Seymour and Chase White back, as well as the six incoming freshmen that we're really excited about, then we've got a chance to start building something."
The 6-foot-5, 285-pound Gouger is among the bigger offensive linemen who signed with the Commodores in February. All six were pegged by Rivals.com as tackle prospects, but it would not be surprising if at least half of them were shuffled inside during preseason camp.
Gouger, who was rated as Rivals.com's No. 68 tackle prospect, is keeping an open mind.
"I'll be flexible with anything, really, because at a certain level you've got to learn to play everywhere," the Soddy-Daisy resident said. "Wherever they stick me is where I will go, and all I can really ask for is to get a shot. I think all the linemen, freshmen and upperclassmen, will come in and work as hard as we can and do the best we can.
"Our mindset is to work as hard as we can, and whatever happens will happen. We're all going to compete."
The Commodores expect to enter camp with sophomore Spencer Pulley as the first-team center, seniors Josh Jelesky and Seymour as the first-team guards and sophomore Andrew Bridges and junior Wesley Johnson as the first-team tackles. White, a sophomore, is considered the top backup at center or guard.
Gouger is focusing for now on his English class every morning at 8:10 and his two-hour workout every afternoon at 2:15, and occasionally he allows himself to take in the fact he has made it to the SEC.
"It's definitely a dream come true," he said. "Every kid grows up playing catch football and two-hand touch football, and then you go through your high school days. I guess it just shows that if you work hard, you can get the things you want. It will be a good time."
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...