Vanderbilt Commodores: Team Overview
By Jess Nicholas
September 1, 2009
The Commodores made a bowl trip in 2008 (even though it was just down the street to where the Tennessee Titans play) for the first time in decades. For 2009, they also find themselves returning 17 starters and a sound defense. So why are the Commodores picked to finish with a losing record? Vanderbilt, all things being equal, is still Vanderbilt, a scrappy team of overachievers who are really out of their league playing against the other 11 SEC teams. But there are practical concerns as well – injuries on the defensive line, uncertainty at quarterback, and a wide receiver corps that was stripped by graduation. As the Dores make the change to more of a spread-option look, the question will be whether the offense can keep the defense off the field long enough to have a positive effect on the game.
Returning Offensive Starters: 7 (LT, LG, C, RG, RT, TE, RB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 9 (LDE, LDT, RDT, RDE, RLB, MLB, LLB, RCB, SS)
Returning Specialists: 1 (P)
Projected Overall Record: 5-7 (LSU, OM, UF, UGA, USC, UT, GaTech)
Projected SEC Record: 2-6 (LSU, OM, UF, UGA, USC, UT)
Projected SEC East Record: 1-4 (UF, UGA, USC, UT)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Fr Defensive Line: Av
Running Backs: Fr Linebackers: Vg
Wide Receivers: Fr Defensive Backs: Av
Offensive Line: Av Special Teams: Fr
Vanderbilt has slowly gotten away from two-back sets and the traditional one-back spread to take on more of a spread-option look. Given that Vanderbilt has traditionally been more able to attract mobile quarterbacks whose weakness is throwing downfield – current Chicago Bear Jay Cutler excepted – this seems like a good switch. The entire offensive line returns intact, but there will be three new starters at the wide receiver positions and the Commodores are still searching for depth at running back.
After watching Mackenzi Adams tap out his potential for a couple of years in a row, the Vandy coaches finally said “enough” and handed the job to Larry Smith prior to last year’s bowl win over Boston College. Smith’s arm is comparable to Adams’ – meaning it’s not in the same league as former starter Chris Nickson’s – but Smith has more upside. Both Adams and Smith are mobile, and both can be expected to play at various times in the season. Vandy intends to make use of the no-huddle offense this fall, which is based off the Tony Franklin spread – the same offense Smith ran at Prattville High School. Junior Jared Funk adds depth.
Starter Jared Hawkins doesn’t get noticed much, but he’s surprisingly productive and is actually probably in the top half of the league in terms of starting tailbacks. The problem is there’s no one behind him. Vanderbilt auditioned several players last year and this spring, with true freshman Zac Stacy apparently winning the job. Stacy is an unheard-of recruit out of Centreville, Ala., and he’s about 20 pounds too light for the position, but he’s apparently all Vandy’s got. Another true freshman, Warren Norman, is also in the mix, along with holdovers Kennard Reeves and Gaston Miller. Vanderbilt uses no fullback, although Reece Lovell is available if Vandy needs a bigger back for short yardage.
This could be a real problem for Vanderbilt. The leader of the pack, senior Alex Washington, caught 1 pass for minus-2 yards in 2008. The other two starters are redshirt freshman John Cole, who the coaches are excited about despite his inexperience, and converted tight end Justin Green, who gives his quarterbacks a target who is nearly 6’7” and 240 pounds. Green and the others will be pushed primarily by Udom Udoh, a sophomore with a lot of potential, senior Justin Wheeler (if he’s healed from a knee injury)and a host of freshmen led by redshirt Akeem Dunham. Collin Ashley, Brady Brown and Minnesota transfer Tray Herndon add depth, along with senior Chris Reinart, who is one of Vanderbilt’s smallest players. The top player of them all, Connecticut transfer Terence Jeffers-Harris, failed to academically qualify for the fall term. Sophomore Brandon Barden returns at tight end, backed up by Austin Monahan. Barden was the team’s second-leading receiver last year.
Vanderbilt returns one of the deepest lines in the SEC. James Williams and Thomas Welch start at tackle, with Ryan Custer and Eric Hensley at the guards. Bradley Vierling gets the call at center. Vierling and Welch may have professional futures. Kyle Fischer has starting experience and will back up both guard slots, while Reilly Lauer, a reserve tackle, also has starting experience. Joey Bailey at tackle and Chris Aaron at center give the Dores experience off the bench at those positions. The question, as always, is whether these players are actually good enough to make a dent in SEC defenses. As a group, they are smaller than most, and the guard positions particularly need to improve.
Vanderbilt returns one of the league’s most experienced defenses. The Commodores will operate from a 4-3 base set, and the success of this unit will largely come down to whether Vandy can develop sufficient depth in the front seven, particularly along the defensive line. The Commodores finished a respectable 30th in total defense in the country last year, but only 69th in rushing defense, good for only 10th in the conference. That number has to get much better.
The tackle combination of Greg Billinger and Adam Smotherman has good size, and they’re scrappy, but neither player is considered a true difference-maker. But Billinger overachieved last year, finishing high up the team’s tackle list despite playing a position that doesn’t lend itself to that kind of production. T.J. Greenstone and freshman Rob Lohr are the backups. Greenstone has a lot of experience, while Lohr is a player the coaches are high on. The modus operandi of the Vandy front four last year was to have the tackles funnel plays to the more talented defensive end duo of Broderick Stewart and Steven Stone, but Stone will miss the first half of the season with injury. Theron Kadri, who left and then came back to the team, figures to start in Stone’s place. Teriall Brannon, Tim Fugger and undersized Johnell Thomas are also competing for the gig. In short, Vanderbilt needs Stone to get healthy, quickly.
This group is deep and has some real star power in the form of weakside backer Patrick Benoist, a preseason all-SEC selection on most ballots. Chris Marve will start in the middle, while there is a spirited battle between John Stokes and Brent Trice for the other outside position. Junior Nate Campbell gives Vandy a quality reserve off the bench. Those five players will form the core, although freshmen DeAndre Jones and Tristan Strong are also in the mix. Vanderbilt has historically produced very good SEC linebackers and this year is no different.
Myron Lewis now becomes the go-to guy in the Commodore secondary after the loss of D.J. Moore and Reshard Langford to the NFL. Lewis is one of the bigger cornerbacks in the league at more than 6’3”. Ryan Hamilton also returns at strong safety, but he really benefited from Langford’s presence last year and his lack of athleticism figures to be an issue now that he’ll be exposed. Casey Hayward and Jamie Graham are competing for Moore’s old spot, while Sean Richardson leads a pack of players for Langford’s old free safety job that includes Micah Powell and John Caldwell. Redshirt freshman Al Owens is also in the mix at safety and has many observers buzzing. All four projected starters have good size and decent speed, but how well the new starters jell will mean quite a bit. The Commodores finished 15th in pass defense and 21st in pass efficiency defense last year and would like to keep that streak going.
Brett Upson returns at punter, where he put up respectable numbers in 2008, but the placekicker job will go to a newcomer. Ryan Fowler has the job for now, with Upson as his backup. Fowler is a freshman. Punt returns were just so-so in 2008, while kickoff returns were atrocious. Gaston Miller will try his hand returning kicks, while Jamie Graham will return punts and assist Miller on kickoff returns.