Monday, July 14, 2008

VSL's 2008 Football Preview (Part I: The Offense)

This is the first of the three part VSL 2008 football preview. Apologizes for the corny song titles, we really couldn't help ourselves. Enjoy the preview.

The Past as Prologue

Every year, at least since 1982, has been “the” year for Vanderbilt Football. But all years for Commodore fans have been created equal. 2007 was no exception. If ever Vanderbilt football appeared ready to get off the schnide, it was 2007, but as Blue Ribbon writes, “Every time Vanderbilt makes a bowl bid seem academic, dumb luck seems to rear its ugly head.” But like so many times before, it was not to be. To be sure, there was much to be proud of on West End. Vanderbilt’s five wins, the most since Vanderbilt’s last “it” season in 2005 with Jay Cutler under center, were all the more disappointing in light of their 7 losses, including 3 SEC losses by a combined 11 points. Without harping on last year’s disappointments, consider that Vanderbilt’s defense last season was ranked 16th overall in the country, and 18th against the pass. 2007 saw Vanderbilt give up its fewest points in 10 years. And to think, in last year’s post the geniuses at VSL thought that side of the ball was going to be the team’s primary weakness. With that as context, no one would blame you for not reading further.

Rebuilding All Over Again?

Vanderbilt had four players drafted into the NFL and another 3 players signed as free agents. Vanderbilt’s entire offensive line has graduated, including 14th pick overall Chris Williams. The heart and soul of the defense, Jonathan Goff, is a Giant (better than a Patriot I suppose, but not by much), and Earl Bennett, one of the best receivers in SEC history, has traded in black and gold for a heavy coat to brave the Chicago winters. All in all, there are certainly holes to fill, but far less than any other rebuilding endeavor CBJ has had to endure. It might not be reloading in the conventional sense, but Vanderbilt’s got more talent given all they lost. 2008 will be a great chance to see just how good CBJ’s recruiting classes have been these past few years. To that end, Blue Ribbon thinks CBJ likes the team he’s got. As Johnson told Blue Ribbon, “we had some guys who we thought were ready to go, who were waiting their turn and were prepared to come in here and take those positions.”

As is always the case at VSL, the heavy-lifting research wise has been done by others. Brett Hait’s Vanderbilt preview in Lindy’s SEC Preview is not to be missed, neither is the Athlon or the Blue Ribbon previews (for ESPN Insiders only). The New York Times’ College Sports Blog, The Quad, despite dogging Vanderbilt with a #93 ranking, is also worth a gander. Finally, our friends in the blogosphere, Sunday Morning Quarterback and Roll 'Bama Roll, also have Vanderbilt previews that you should check out. With that said, let’s get to the preview.

Offensive Line – Strong Enough?

There is no doubt that Offensive Line Coach, and Assistant Head Coach Robbie Caldwell will have to do his best coaching job yet to give the offense the kind of protection they need. According to The Man We Love to Hait, 300 lbs., 6’7 junior Thomas Welch is the man to “replace” Chris Williams. While losing a first-round pick at the anchor position on the line is difficult to replace, Brett sees junior Center Bradley Vierling as the “key” to the offensive line, who “took over as the unit’s leader” this spring. Junior Guard Ryan Custer is also “one to watch” according to Brett’s piece in Lindy’s. While the depth charts now have junior Drew Gardner (6’6, 300 lbs.) slated to start at Right Guard, Athlon sees a potential battle between promising red-shirt freshmen Kyle Fischer (6’6 305 lbs.) and James Williams (6’6 305 lbs) for the second (and perhaps starting) slot.

The depth charts in both Athlon and Lindy’s indicate that despite replacing all five offensive lineman, the line won’t be completely “green.” All the projected starters are juniors. Both previews have the line-up from left to right looking like this: Thomas Welch, Ryan Custer, Bradley Vierling, Drew Gardner, Eric Hensley. Athlon believes “depth will be an issue,” but also will “not surprised if there isn’t much of a drop-off from the line this fall.”

Quarterbacks – Holding Out for a Hero

Some might think it’s odd that Vanderbilt’s QB discussion would not lead this preview. We are not convinced it’s the most important thing to worry about on the offensive side of the ball. If the line can’t protect, and Ted Cain can’t find the next page in the playbook, than it wouldn’t matter if Seamus lined up under center. Chris Nickson had, to say the least, a difficult 2007 season. Injuries and lack of confidence plagued Nickson in 2007, but according to most reports, the Nickson of old returned this past spring. Both previews have Chris as the starter on the depth chart, but neither would be surprised to see Mackenzi Adams step in early, especially given their “similar skill sets.” I look at things a little differently. If Nickson struggles, it would not surprise me at all to hear freshman Larry Smith and sophomore Jared Funk’s names added to the mix. Further, I would say that if Vanderbilt’s record is not 3-1 or better entering October (more on that below), then it’s time for Larry Smith and Jared Funk to get some serious run. Brett sees Smith as the “quarterback of the future,” the VSL tends to agree.

Wide Receivers/Tight Ends – Good-Bye Earl

No one can replace Earl Bennett, but 6th year senior George Smith (who overcame a potentially deadly case of transverse myelitis) and senior Sean Walker have proven they can make plays. Smith had 32 catches, 397 yards, and 3 TDs last season, with Walker adding 20 catches 270 yards, and 3 TDs of his own. Juniors Justin Wheeler and Alex Washington are also going to play big roles if this team is going to have any air attack. It’s possible however, that the real players to watch might are the back-ups, with red-shirt freshmen Udom Umoh and Jamie Graham getting Commodore coaches (and VSL pundits) excited. Throw in D.J. Moore (the savior of this team depending on who you ask), and it’s possible the receiving corps could be real playmakers. Clemson transfer Andrew Diomande (senior, 6’1, 195 lbs.) is also eligible.

It’s also possible that Vanderbilt, for the first time in a long time, has a legitimate presence at Tight End. Virginia Tech transfer Brandon Barden (Freshman, 6’5, 240 lbs.) is eligible, and we think he’ll be a factor. Athlon and Lindy’s disagree. Junior Jake Bradford is first on their respective depth charts, with sophomore Justin Green his number two. The receiving unit is ranked 12 out of 12 by Lindy’s, but VSL really think this could be a unit that surprises a lot of people.

Running Backs – Running On Faith

Despite getting significant carries last season, Jeff Jennings and Jared Hawkins make up what is, the biggest "wild-card" unit for the Commodores offense. Vanderbilt has had one 100-yard rushing game in the past two years, and neither Jeff Jennings nor Jared Hawkins was the guy. Still, if the offensive line can hold, Jennings and Hawkins could be a very good 1-2 combo. Jennings is the closest think to a power runner Vanderbilt’s got. There is a disagreement between Athlon and Lindy’s about who Vanderbilt’s number one runner is: Athlon thinks Jared Hawkins is the guy and Lindy’s (i.e. Brett) thinks Jeff’s the guy. Bobby thinks Jared would be more effective not being the “every down” back.

CBJ is singing the praises of sophomore Gaston Miller (5’7, 170 lbs.), and we think like his late brother Kwane, red-shirt freshman Jermaine Doster could be an impact player right away. According to Blue Ribbon, Miller is a “home run threat in a slap hitter’s package.” Further, redshirt freshman Ryan van Rensburg could come in and make a big impact at either the fullback or tailback position. There are several players who’ve been to the rodeo before as well as some talented underclassmen, but if Ted Cain insists on running such a conservative offense (particularly when leading games), the only way for Vanderbilt to win is with a consistent ground attack.

Editor's Note: Part II: The Defense and Part III: The Schedule/Predictions will be released periodically from over the next two weeks.


Anything but Gatorade said...

Good luck, Commies. I hope your pass-happy offense survives the season with a line that loosely resembles the French Grande Armee circa 1939 (as an unabashed Kentucky fan, I'm grossly familiar with the concept). Nonetheless, here's hoping for a successful season and a home game with some semblance of home field advantage. Go Dores!

Douglas James said...

Good job guys. Hopefully the offense surprises us as the defense did last year. I agree with Barden he seemed like a big time prospect but i was dissapointed that he wasn't being mentioned as a possible break out this year. With such a normally bland offense a big TE target could be very important.

Anonymous said...

you honestly expect people to read all of that? a bunch of rambling BS from some guys with no real knowledge, ill stick to the mags, thank you very much

Douglas James said...

Isn't that exactly what a blog is? Isn't that what sports is all about a bunch of people sitting around debating stuff even though they don't have any real inside knowledge? Just instead of doing it at a bar or on your buddies couch we are doing it online so i dont have to do my work.

Boyer in the District said...

I'd actually only expect people with a reading level above that of 7 year old to read that much, anonymous, since it took less than 5 minutes.

Douglas James said...

Vandy has new football gear. But why can't i buy a jersey on the official store?

Anonymous said...

The new uniforms are sweet. Hopefully we will have better luck in those then the old ones.

Anonymous said...

As you kids already know, no player has more to do with the outcome of a football game than the QB, except perhaps a dominant interior defensive lineman.

So Nickson is the key: I like Adams but he's not the 2500/750 threat that CN is.

Jarred Amato said...

Hey guys,
Great work with the preview. A few thoughts:

1) Like you mention, the o-line isn't going to be as inexperienced or terrible as many are predicting. My only concern is its depth (but when is that not an issue with the Dores?)
2) At QB, I'm worried that the Chris Nickson of 2006 might be gone forever. The ceiling isn't as high with Adams, but he's a good athlete and leader who's well-liked by his teammates. If Mac beats Georgia and Tennessee last season, there's no doubt he enters this year as the starter.
3) With that said, if the Dores struggle early on, I'm all for playing the future, and that includes both Funk and Larry Smith. I thought Funk was very impressive in the spring game.
4) You guys are right on with the tight ends. Barden and Green are great athletes, Bradford is a monster and don't forget about Austin Monahan, who could surprise some people as well.
5) I hear that Jennings is in the best shape of his life and we already know that Hawkins is one of the hardest working players in the program. It won't really matter who starts since most programs run a 2-back system anyways. With Gaston added to the mix, this unit has a chance to better than last year's.
6) I can't wait to see D.J. Moore and Jamie Graham lined up wide (or possibly in the backfield). Hopefully Cain finds creative ways to use them both.

Now if this season would just start already...

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