Tuesday, August 4, 2009

VSL 2009 Offensive Preview

Editor's Note: This is the first of VSL's 3-part 2009 season preview. The Defensive Preview will appear Thursday or Friday of this week.

Vanderbilt’s struggles on the offensive side of the ball have been well documented over the past few seasons. As the defense has emerged as one of the stoutest in the SEC (and the country for that matter), the offense under the play-calling of Offensive Coordinator Ted Cain has lagged, last season finishing 117th in Division I in total offense. Athlon’s Vanderbilt preview highlighted how the Commodores' offensive output has regressed over the past 3 season: down from 395.6 ypg in 2005 to 256.2 last year. Worse, the Commodores failed to score a touchdown in the first half of 5 of their last 6 regular season games. For Vanderbilt to be successful this season, those numbers have to improve.

Still, it’s not all doom and gloom on the offensive side of the ball. Bobby Johnson returns 7 offensive starters, including the entire offensive line. But the real story (as always, it seems with the Commodores) is at the quarterback position. Redshirt sophomore Larry Smith is expected to battle it out with 5th year senior Mackenzi Adams for the starting nod under center. In the off-season, Vanderbilt implemented a no-huddle, spread offense similar to the style Smith ran when he was winning Mr. Football honors in Alabama 3 years ago. Commodore fans were extremely excited by what they saw from Smith in the 4th quarter of the Wake Forest game and the Music City Bowl. As far as we at VSL are concerned, Larry’s time is now.


Whomever emerges as the starting quarterback for the Commodores will have to improve Vanderbilt’s aerial attack from last season. Vanderbilt averaged a paltry 112.6 yards per game in the air, a number that no defense (SEC or not) is afraid of. The battle between Mac and Larry will undoubtedly dominate the coverage of the Commodores headed into the season. On the one hand, Mac is a 5th year senior who has come up big for the Commodores in years past (last season’s win against Auburn specifically comes to mind). With that said, he is not spectacular and is not someone defensive coordinator’s stay up nights worrying about. He is a good athlete, has good speed, and can take a hit like a champ. What has never been clear to me is whether the offensive play-calling has been limited by Mac being under center, or if Ted Cain’s playbook truly only contains 11 plays (including the double reserve that never works). I suspect it’s a little bit of both. Mac’s stats last season were OK. He had a 49.3% completion percentage, threw for 883 yards, and threw 5 TDs and 8 interceptions. Hardly setting the world on fire, but comparable to Chris Nickson’s stats who completed 48% of his passes and threw for 8 touchdowns compared to 3 INTs. Adams averages 11.45 yards per completion, while Nickson only averaged 8.93.

On the other hand, there is Larry Smith. Larry Smith has been highly touted since choosing Vanderbilt after being snubbed by his home state powers Auburn and Bama. He’s a red-shirt sophomore who took all the reps with the first time in the spring. In very limited action last season, Larry impressed the Vanderbilt faithful completing 19 of 34 passes (55%) for 167 yards. Yards per reception is actually below Chris Nickson’s, but when you consider the 80 (or was it 90) yard bomb Justin Wheeler should have taken to the house (as opposed to dropping) at Wake, and his numbers are even better than Mac’s.

In all the previews, Larry is QB1 on the depth charts. The Commodores putting in the same offense he ran in high school has only bolstered the speculation that the job is his to lose. Still, in typical CBJ fashion, it is expected he will delay naming a starter until the last possible second. We think that is a mistake. Confidence is key in football, especially at the quarterback position. If Larry is the guy, make that clear early. It’s not as if the game plan opposing teams will design will be dramatically different depending on who’s under center: they play a similar game, Larry just plays it better. The quarterback is the leader on the field. Despite entering his 3rd season with the Black and Gold, Smith is still young. With that said, he is clearly the future. Our advice: give him the starting nod and look to fall back on Mac (or Jared Funk) if (AND ONLY IF) it is absolutely necessary.

Running Back

We’ve sung the praises of senior Jared Hawkins before. But as far as we’re concerned, he’s got to become more of a factor this season than he was last year. While he averaged a respectable 4.3 yards per carry last season, he only took 1 carry for +25 yards, and never hit the 100 yard mark against an SEC opponent. Jared’s a tough player, but he seems to be hobbled by injuries, something that will be an even greater concern this year given the lack of a bye week. Vanderbilt desperately needs a more consistent and potent running attack than they’ve had in years past, especially with the introduction of the no-huddle offense. Whether it’s Jared or another Commodore, someone will have to step up. Keep in mind, Vanderbilt hasn't had a running back surpass the 1,000 yard mark since 1995.

But who? There is no shortage of speculation about who #2 on the depth chart will be for the Commodores. Athlon opines that the 6’2, 210 lbs. freshman Wesley Tate (brother of Golden) will be that guy. Mo Patton’s preview for Lindy's sees junior Kennard Reeves (6’0, 202) as the guy. We’re not so sure. The freshman class includes two other running backs who might be able to come in and make a difference right away: Zac Stacy, (5’9, 192) and Warren Norman (5’10, 188). All three freshmen earned 3 stars from Rivals. Still, I think Murfreesboro junior Gaston Miller (5’7, 175) and Jermaine Doster (5’10, 204) are being overlooked. Ryan van Rensburg is another guy to watch. While the 6'1, 228 lbs. sophomore from Jacksonville is built like a full back, he can be a real assest both as a blocker and if the Commodores ever find themselves in a short yardage situation. The coaching staff would undoubtedly like to redshirt as many of the freshmen as possible, and it seems unlikely that all these guys will dress when the season starts. While it won’t be as sexy as the QB battle, the fight for the second spot on the depth chart at running back should be extremely entertaining. Who will emerge at this point is anyone’s guess.

Wide Receiver/Tight End

While the battle for #2 among the running backs is interesting, the wide receiver position is definitely the most wide-open on either side of the ball. The Commodores lost George Smith and Sean Walker to graduation, Justin Wheeler to a torn ACL in the spring, and Jamie Graham to the defense. There is almost no consensus among the preseason previews as to who the starters will be. The Sporting News, Lindy’s, and Athlon all have 5’10 junior Alex Washington starting. That’s where the agreement ends. Athlon expects UConn transfer Terrence Jeffers (6’2, 220), and redshirt freshman John Cole (5’11, 170) to round out the starting line-up. John Cole is somewhat of an unknown commodity, given the fact he went down to injury in the first game of last season. As of the spring, John’s knee was not 100%. As we’ve documented on this site, there is still a question as to whether Jeffers will be eligible to play this year. It’s possible that the most important number for the offense is the number of credit hours Jeffers earned at summer school, which will determine whether or not he is academicly eligble.

Mo Patton thinks sophomore Udom Umoh (6’0, 175) will start, as does The Sporting News. However, the fact that TSN still has Justin Wheeler projected to start despite tearing his ACL makes their prognostications less than credible. Mo’s third starting wide receiver is Tray Herndon, a 5’10, 182 lbs. transfer from Minnesota. Despite the lack of consensus, what they all agree on is whatever combination of wide receivers Vanderbilt puts on the field, they will be short. Only 2 of the 6 projected starters are 6 feet or taller, and one of them might not even be eligible. Don’t be surprised at all if some freshmen (redshirt or otherwise) emerge from pre-season workouts and find themselves starting early on. Specifically, watch out for Akeem Durham, a 6’3, 198 lbs. redshirt freshman from Florida, and incoming freshmen Brady Brown (6’5, 200) and Colin Ashley (6’0, 170). At 6’5, Brown is probably the most likely true freshmen on the offensive side of the ball to play right away.

The tight end position has none of the drama that currently plagues the wide receivers. 6’5, 245 lbs. sophomore Brandon Barden is the consensus starter for the Commodores, backed up by the very able junior, Austin Monahan (6’6, 250). Barden has great hands (the team’s leading returning pass catcher from a year ago) and was an All-SEC Freshman last season. Dubbed the "next big thing" by TSN, Brandon is sure to be a favorite target of whichever quarterback emerges given the team’s shift to a no-huddle offense. While Barden needs to continue to work on his blocking, he gives the Commodores a reliable pair of hands (something the team has certainly lacked in years past).

Offensive Line

Vanderbilt returns 7 linemen who start at least 5 games last season. The unit seems to be set, as all the previews agree as to who the opening day starters will be. The line is anchored by Captain Bradley Vierling at center, who along with right tackle Thomas Welch, was the only guy on the line to start all 13 games last season. Bradley has been a vocal leader in the off-season and is going to be even more valuable if the relatively young Smith lines up behind him. The coaching staff believes the line will be “athletic, but undersized,” something Commodore fans have come to expect (at least the undersized part). Still, with an average weight of 300.4lbs. and a lot of experience from last season, this unit should not be pushed around.

Rounding out the line is Reilly Lauer, a converted DE who is now lining up at left tackle, Kyle Fischer at left guard, and Eric Hensley at right. Mo Patton has O-Line coach Robbie Caldwell saying of Lauer that while he might be somewhat undersized at 6’6, 275, the team likes his pass protection skills, his quick feet, and his wingspan. Mo also has his eye on Ryan Seymour, a redshirt freshman, who moved from DT to OT during the spring to spell Lauer on the edge.

Bottom Line

Vanderbilt needs to get more production from both their ground and air attacks. The offense has been going backwards over the past several seasons, despite making it to their first bowl since 1982. There are a plethora of questions surrounding the offense: who will be the starting QB? Who will he be throwing to? Will this be the year a big-play runner finally emerges? All these questions are complicated by the fact that Vanderbilt is implementing a new offense. If this team can’t get some first downs, the no-huddle offense, even if not run at a breakneck pace, will mean less time for the defense to rest. An SEC schedule is brutal enough. Add to that 12 consecutive weeks of games and an offense that doesn’t give its defense time to recover, and you have a recipe for disaster.

Vanderbilt was 5-3 last season in games when they rushed for over 100 yards. While 2 of those wins came over Miami of Ohio and Rice, there is little doubt that for the Commodores to make it to a second straight bowl, they are going to have to develop more of a ground attack (especially with the a no-huddle offense). Despite closing the talent and athleticism gap with our SEC brethren, Vanderbilt can't afford to give anything away or take anything for granted. Consider this stat: in Vanderbilt's 7 wins, they held a +13 turnover advantage (20-7) over their opponents; in their 6 losses, that number was -4 (10-14). Here's another nugget: Vanderbilt scored on 22 of 23 trips to the Red Zone in their 7 wins (95.6%) and just 7 of 12 times in their 6 losses (58.3%). Even with the implementation of a new offense, the Commodores will have to take care of the ball and take advantage of all scoring opportunities that present themselves.

Last season, Vanderbilt outscored opponents 127-81 in the second half. For fans who are used to seenig Vanderbilt play hard for a half or even 3 quarters, only to run out of stem down the stretch, that statistic is nothing, if not gratifying. It offers further proof that the Commodores have the talent to finish games rather than just stay competitive in them. Perhaps with the exception of Stanimal, we at VSL are eternal optimists and think the offensive unit will make strides in 2009. However, it all starts with the quarterback. Who that is and how he plays will go a long way in determining whether there’s football in December or January for the Commodore faithful.


blockersave93 said...

Nice preview, I'm sure all the 'Dores appreciate it. 1 question though, how are they using Barden? Is he going to be split out wide, lined up as an H-back or true tight end? I am an alum that can't get any info since I live in Tampa, and to me he appears to be the key. If we can use the small speedy recievers (since that is nearly all we have) to clear out and create mismatches with Barden to sustain drives, hopefully we won't be wearing out the defense. The creativity of Cain has to improved for any of this to work. Looking forward to some update once practice opens in a few days!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all the hard work guys...

Anonymous said...

i,m not sure I have seen a worse off. coordinator. than Cain and unless vandy can get some kind of running game going it will not matter who plays QB. I also think think both mac and chris were good QBs when healthy.You can't run that many qb draws a game.