SEC Pre-Season Capsules: An In-Depth Look at the Vanderbilt Commodores
If you stand right now and claim you expected the season the Vanderbilt Commodores had in 2008, there is one thing I can assure you of—you're in the minority.
However, if you are like me, the fall progressed a little in this fashion.
Seeing Vandy pull out the 24-17 win over then No. 24-ranked South Carolina brought the comment, "That's nice. Good to see them get an SEC win under their belts."
For the Commodores to travel to Oxford, manage another win in similar fashion against Mississippi (23-17) to win their second consecutive SEC victory probably raised your eyebrows a bit.
Sure, it was a new staff at Ole Miss. But, a road win for the 'Dores?
Then, the weekend that may have defined the Auburn Tigers season.
ESPN's Gameday crew visits Nashville for the first time.
The Commodores pull a stunning come-from-behind victory to knock off the 13th-ranked Tigers 14-13.
"Are you kidding me? Did I just witness what I thought I did?"
But, alas, the Vanderbilt team we are all accustomed to finally arrived on the scene.
Despite starting the 2008 season 5-0, the 'Dores finished their campaign losing six of their last seven contests.
Ah, but they did make it to their first bowl game in decades, beating another ranked opponent, Boston College, 16-14, in what was essentially a "trip around the block" for the Music City Bowl.
What does 2009 bring?
Do we see the Vanderbilt that started the season winning their first five ball games?
Or, do we see a team that mirrors the latter half of the fall of 2008?
In the first of our 12-part series on the SEC in 2009, here's an in-depth look at the Vanderbilt Commodores.
The quarterback controversy that defined the 2008 season seems to be something the Commodores will start the 2009 season experiencing again.
With a very lackluster performance from the QB position, and the offense in general, Vandy offensive coordinator Ted Cain took a different approach in spring camp when he installed a no-huddle offensive package with the hopes of adding a spark to the offense's production.
The help was certainly needed, with the Vanderbilt passing offense ranking near the bottom of the NCAA and in the cellar of the SEC.
What is still left as an unknown is whether the signal caller will be McKenzi Adams, who saw quite a bit of time relieving Chris Nix last season, or the offense will be handed over to sophomore Larry Smith.
Both quarterbacks are athletic enough to run the faster paced offense, but it seems to be a better fit for Larry Smith, considering his experience running the same sets in high school.
The Running Backs
The good news for Vanderbilt is they were 5-3 when they rushed for over 100 yards last season.
The bad news is their returning starter, Jared Hawkins, didn't break the 600 yard mark on the season and only made it into the end zone four times.
In fact, he didn't break the 100-yard mark in a single SEC contest last season.
Hawkins is one player the 'Dores desperately need more production from in 2009. But, the Vandy staff isn't putting all their hopes in his hands.
The 2009 season brings three fresh faces to the running back corps — Zac Stacy, Warren Norman and Wesley Tate. The staff has indicated that all three will see action this fall as Vanderbilt adopts a "running back by committee approach."
What still left as the greatest unknown is if any of the four can be that "game breaker" you see across the board with most SEC teams.
It certainly doesn't appear Hawkins can fill that bill, considering he only managed one rushing attempt last season that resulted in more than a 25-yard gain.
The Wide Receivers
Continuing the theme of looking to fresh faces for help, the wide receivers look for a boost from two transfers—Tray Herndon and Terrence Jeffers-Harris.
Herndon spent the last two season playing with Minnesota, and Jeffers transferred in from the University of Connecticut. Jeffers, based on his productivity from the last two years, looks like the most promising of the two.
Both bring much needed experience to join a growing group of younger players.
Joining incoming freshman incoming freshmen Brady Brown and Collin Ashley are redshirt freshman John Cole and Alex Washington.
Former starter, Justin Wheeler, tore his ACL in spring camp and what contributions—if any—he'll be able to bring to the team are still unknown.
Expect Vanderbilt to rely heavily on their tight ends this fall. Austin Monahan and freshman All-SEC Brandon Barden will see the majority of the snaps.
The Offensive Line
This group is the only unit on the offensive side of the ball featuring both a mix of returning starters and veterans to SEC play.
The 'Dores have seven lineman who started last year. Yet, it wasn't until the very last of the season that the offensive coaching staff finally settled on a starting five.
How this group adapts to the new offensive approach is definitely a point of interest. Although, considering they are considered "under-sized" when it comes to most SEC lineman, they are an agile and athletic group.
With three seniors, a junior and sophomore slated to start in '09, the experience should play a huge factor as the team adjusts to a no-huddle offensive set.
One thing the Vandy staff will not hesitate in pointing out is while they feel the new offensive approach is a good fit for their line, they have a lot of improvement to make in order to avoid the inconsistencies of 2008.
The Defensive Line
Much like the offensive line, the 'Dores return quite a bit of experience along the defensive line as well.
While they won't rank among the best defensive lines in the SEC, this group should be the part of the anchor that makes Vanderbilt at least competitive this fall.
The interior of the line is highlighted by defensive tackle Greg Billinger, who had more tackles last season than the other two tackles—Adam Smotherman and T.J. Greenstone—did combined.
Defensive end Broderick Stewart missed spring camp recovering from a broken leg he sustained against Tennessee last fall.
Even though he's considered small when compared to other SEC defensive ends, he's proven himself as one of the better pass rushers.
Steven Stone, who joins Stewart as the other starting end, led the defensive line in sacks last season. The combination recorded 10.5 on the season and should only improve in 2009.
With no doubt, the linebacking corps is the strength of the Vanderbilt team for 2009.
Led by sophomore Chris Marve, ranked fourth in total tackles in the SEC last season and was selected on the All-Freshman SEC team, the unit also returns Patrick Benoist, who led the team with 109 tackles in 2008.
The expectation from defensive coordinator Jamie Bryant is strong side linebacker John Stokes can make this one of the top linebacking groups in the SEC.
Stokes, who battled injuries throughout the 2008 season, was the most sought-after recruit on the Vanderbilt roster.
Another player to keep your eyes open for is Brandon Bryant, who missed all of the 2008 season recovering from a broken leg.
On the complete opposite of the spectrum, the secondary returns little experience and has very little depth as well.
It isn't a lack of quality athletes, it's simply a case where there isn't enough of them—leaving the defensive coaching staff placing most of their hopes on fresh faces to shore up the group.
Three-year starter Myron Lewis is the best player of the group, a defensive back who should be playing on Sundays in the next few years.
However, the question mark lies opposite Lewis where sophomore Jamie Graham takes over for NFL draftee D.J. Moore.
Ryan Hamilton, free safety, joins Lewis as the other senior of the group. Like Lewis, Hamilton will be flanked by sophomore Sean Richardson.
The one benefit Hamilton will enjoy is Richardson played in all but one game in the 2008 season, so his transition into a starting role shouldn't be as cumbersome as that of Graham.
Experience, and another fresh face.
The 'Dores punter, Brett Upson, returns for his senior season. Despite an average season last year—Upson averaged just over 40 yards per punt—he demonstrated continuous improvement in his punting and won the MVP award for the 2008 Music City Bowl.
The place kicking responsibilities are still "up in the air," so to speak. Upson spent the spring in competition with redshirt freshman Ryan Fowler.
2009 Season Outlook:
The 2009 Vanderbilt team is one of mystery heading into this fall.
Although Vandy has an experienced senior quarterback on the roster in Mackenzi Adams, the coaching staff is looking hard at a redshirt sophomore to lead this team.
Larry Smith, a former Prattville High School standout, played the last two games of the season and led Vanderbilt to a 16-14 victory over Boston College in the Music City Bowl.
The running back position is one of major concern with only one returning back with any experience. The Commodores will rely heavily on the 2009 recruiting class to upgrade that position.
The receiving corps will also have question marks with no experience returning. The leading receiver on the team entering the fall is the TE, Brandon Barden, with 28 catches for 209 yards and 4 touchdowns.
The offensive line will be the strong point of this offense with three seniors across the line. If they have any injuries though, that position too could have some serious question marks.
The defensive side of the ball will be a strong point, and likely the only chance Vandy has at a decent season.
With linebackers Patrick Benoist and Chris Marve returing as the top two tacklers last season, it's safe to assume that will be the heart of the defense.
The third leading tackler last season was safety Ryan Hamilton who will also be back as a senior. The defensive line will also have three seniors and will be led by defensive end Steven Stone who recorded 42 tackles and five sacks last year.
On special teams, punter Brett Upson returns after averaging 40.4 per punt last season. Freshman Ryan Fowler will relied on as the kicker and will have to adjust quickly.
If Vanderbilt can stay healthy this fall and have a running back step up before the end of September, they have a chance to win six games.
If they are forced to rely on the quarterback to win games, they will likely finish at the bottom of the Eastern Division, despite having a very good defense.