Undoubtedly you’ve all been on the edge of your seats ever since we promised a preview of Vanderbilt’s 2007 football season. You can exhale now, because the stellar analysis that follows is sure to satiate your appetite for Commie football fanaticism…
We’re starting with offense because this side of the ball is clearly the strength of Vandy’s team. Let’s cut to the chase: Earl Bennett is the star everyone’s talking about, and will—barring injury—break the SEC record for career receptions this season. But if Earl is the star, Chris Nickson is sure to be the key to this team’s success. FOX Sports put it well: Will the junior QB go from good to tremendous? A lot hinges on the answer to that question, but before we try to answer it, let’s take a look at each position.
This is where it all begins, and for the first time in a long time, Vandy fans have some things to be excited about up front. Two preseason All-SEC players in LT Chris Williams and RT Brian Stamper will anchor the line. NFL scouts are going nuts over Williams. Stamper, on the other hand, was granted a medical redshirt for back problems last season but was highly regarded among SEC linemen in 2005 and as captain is looking for a big finish to his collegiate career. The entire line is composed of senior leaders, and all are returning starters. Center Hamilton Holliday is a solid blocker whose experience will be crucial to an otherwise-shaky interior. Projected at left guard is Josh Eames and Merritt Kirchoffer looks to remain at right guard. Both of them are experienced but haven’t proven themselves to be world beaters by any means, and both have been plagued by injuries over the past season (as have nearly all the O-linemen). The coaches moved Thomas Welch from tight end to right tackle to fill in for Stamper last season, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see him take over at the tackle position, moving the versatile Stamper to right guard and shoring up that side of the line.
This unit has been ranked as high as 4th in the SEC and as low as 11th by the preseason publications. Their effectiveness will hinge (surprise, surprise) on whether or not they can stay healthy. Despite some of the best trench talent we’ve had in years, lack of depth remains a serious concern. One thing’s for sure: with a single-back offensive set, Vandy’s ability to run the ball and handle middle blitz packages will depend on the interior linemen stepping up. We like the prospects for Chris Nickson throwing the ball but we’re still concerned that the offensive line (especially in the A and B gaps) may go “Roger Dorn” in its efforts to handle the best D-linemen in the country.
Bobby Johnson says he’s excited about this position, so we can’t help ourselves but echo him. What we lack in talent could potentially be more than made up for in bodies. Cassen Jackson-Garrison was the starter in 2006, but the return of Jeff Jennings following a season-ending knee injury in 2005 means the #1 spot on the roster remains to be decided. Both sizeable backs (6’1”, ~220 lb.), look for the two of them to share most of the ground duties in our spread offense. We’ve never been overly impressed by Jackson-Garrison’s speed or cutting ability, and while he’s been solid statistically (4.0 yds/rush), the numbers in SEC play just aren’t there. According to CBJ, Jackson-Garrison, Jennings, and Jared Hawkins (5’10”, 192-pounder who ran for 6.9 yards per carry last season) all are capable of starting. We know Jennings has a nose for the end zone (12 career TDs in just 169 carries comes out to a disgusting one TD per 14 rushes) and we’re hoping a season in recovery hasn’t changed that. Given this assessment, we agree with a decision to go running-back-by-committee and have two or three guys share the load unless (or until) one of them proves himself to be the clear-cut leader.
This could be the fourth dimension that Vanderbilt’s offense needs to put it over the edge into bowl eligibility, and no other season in recent memory has seen so much potential at the position (the late Kwane Doster excepted). As of now it’s unclear how things will unfold, but we’ve got a deep and able corps that should be reason enough for optimism, particularly if the offensive line stays healthy and plays to its potential.
Chris Nickson was recently selected as a preseason All-SEC QB by the SEC coaches, beating out the likes of Brandon Cox, Matt Stafford, Tim Tebow, and John Parker Wilson for the third-team spot. We think this reflects his dual-threat capabilities and his potential to be the guy who takes Vanderbilt to its first bowl game since 1983. It doesn’t hurt that he’s got the best receiver in the league as his #1 option. He also happened to be the Commies’ leading rusher and took it into the end zone 9 times. What we like most about Nickson is the way he matured over the course of last season, saving his best for last down the stretch including 446 passing yards (517 total-offense yards) and 298 in the air against Florida.
There are two numbers to watch out for with respect to Nickson: 60% and 2-to-1 (guess that’s three numbers, but alas). Nickson completed 55% of his passes last season and we want to see that number reach at least 60% this year. He also threw 15 TDs but had 13 INTs and those picks have got to go down. We’d love to see Nickson’s touchdown-to-interception ratio reach 2-to-1 – 20 and 10 is a reasonable goal in our opinion.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Ealr Bennett is clearly the best wide receiver in the SEC, and by most accounts ranks among the top 3 or 4 wideouts in the country. He needs just 48 receptions to become the SEC’s career leader. His size and speed aren’t off the charts, but the guy finds openings in defenses that most D-coordinators don’t know exist, and hangs onto the football. After starting his college career with 72 catches, Earl’s ability didn’t come as a surprise to anyone – with opposing defenses keying on him and a first-year QB under center, Earl caught eight more balls than he did in 2005. Enough said. The supporting cast of wideouts will be returning starter George Smith and junior Sean Walker. While we’ll miss Marlon White, Vanderbilt fans can rest assured that Smith and Walker are more than capable of making big plays (and might even be in for breakout seasons). Don’t be surprised to see Bennett’s numbers dip slightly, but that can only be good for the Commodores as overall offensive productivity increases with a wider distribution of assets. Look for him to get more touchdown passes as an increase in viable options should find Earl in single coverage more in the red zone, where he only caught 2 of his 6 TDs last season. As for the tight end position, VSL predicts that Brad Allen will take a backseat (if not right away, then within a few games) to Virginia Tech-transfer Brandon Barden (6’5”, 225 lb.). More than just shoring up the offensive line’s blocking ability, Barden could be a viable dump-off option for Nickson, something we didn’t see much of last season.
While this group is much more than just Earl Bennett, there is no mistaking that he is the player to watch and possibly the best receiver Vandy’s ever had (apologies M.J. Garrett, but take heart in the fact that you found out what happened when people stopped being polite and started getting real). The challenge facing offensive coordinator Ted Cain is to figure out how to parlay Earl’s many receptions into trips to the end zone. I heard scoring matters.
The Big Picture
There is no question that the Commies have a potent offense, but the key for this team will be making sure they are putting points on the board when they have the chance. Last season, Vanderbilt’s red zone efficiency plummeted to 67.4% (53% for TDs), down from 88.9% in 2005. Blue Ribbon made this point in their Vanderbilt season preview, and we absolutely agree. With Jeff Jennings’ nose for the end zone, the emergence of multiple threats on the outside, and Chris Nickson’s sheer athletic ability, there is reason for Commodore Nation to think scoring points inside the 20 will be less of an issue this season. For Vanderbilt to be successful, it will to have to be.
As we alluded to in the section on Quarterbacks, turnovers plagued this team last season. Nickson threw 13 interceptions and the team lost 14 fumbles (26 fumbles overall). Overall, the team had 28 turnovers in 12 games, averaging over 2 turnovers a contest, and good (or bad) enough for 94th in Division I. For CBJ’s squad, limiting turnovers and cashing in on scoring opportunities when they present themselves will be keys to their success.
Finally—and this is always an issue with Vanderbilt—time of possession and 3rd down conversions will be significant. Last year the team converted only 33% of its third downs, good enough for 99th in Division I alongside Ball State and Kent State. Our opponents converted 41% of third downs – we’d like to see the Commies improve to 41%. For the first time in a long time, Vanderbilt has a relatively deep offensive unit; the same cannot be said on the defensive side of the ball (as we will address in our upcoming defensive preview). If Vanderbilt can move the chains and keep the defense off the field, they will not only give themselves more opportunities to score, but likely cut into the 84-54 scoring margin opponents enjoyed in the fourth quarter last season.
2. Neil Brake/VU Media Relations
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