Wednesday, August 12, 2009

VSL's 5 Keys for the Commodores

Editor's Note: The following article appears on While they don't think the Commodores are much of a threat this season, this is a great site and provides a wealth of information about the conference.

1. Who’s Out Wide? Vanderbilt fans were dealt a serious blow when UConn transfer Terrance Jeffers-Harris was ruled academically ineligible. Add to that Justin Wheeler tearing his ACL this spring, and a pair of redshirts, John Cole and Akeem Dunham nursing hamstring injuries, and you already have a depleted unit. Coach Bobby Johnson moved the all-purpose Jamie Graham back to the secondary this spring, but has said that Graham was likely to get some time on offense as well. Less than a week into practice, is it time for Graham to be doing more reps with the offense? For now, senior Alex Washington, sophomore transfer Tray Herndon, and Udom Umoh would seem to move onto the first line by default. With that said, don’t be surprised to see one or both of the true freshmen playing right away, especially Brady Brown, a 6’5, 200 lbs. from Argyle, Texas. VSL also likes what we’re hearing about 6′6, 232 lb. Justin Green, a converted tight end who’s been moved over to wideout in recent practices. Green has the advantage of exceptional size and a decent resume of experience against SEC foes. He was a track star in high school and played WR in a spread offense, so we think he could be a real threat as a possession receiver.

2. Kick Me. Numbers wise, Vanderbilt didn’t lose much from last year’s Music City Bowl squad. But what they did lose was extremely important. The first of two keys dealing with departures comes in the kicking game, where place kicker Bryant Hahnfeldt was lost to graduation. While Hahnfeldt wasn’t always the most reliable kicker, he had a good senior year, including connecting on a 45-yard FG in the Music City Bowl to give the Commodores a 16-14 lead. Vying for the job are punter (and reining Music City Bowl MVP) Brett Upson and redshirt freshman Ryan Fowler. Upson has been good since camp opened, but his punting was critically important to last year’s team, and the coaching staff is unlikely to do anything to affect that. If it’s even between Upson and Fowler, expect the freshman to be the guy early.

3. Wanted: Big Playmaker. Echoing key 2, Vanderbilt’s loss of D.J. Moore leaves the team without a “game changer.” Over the course of the season, D.J. was a weapon for the Commodores on defense, offense (whether as a decoy or when he actually had the ball in his hands), and as a returner. Vanderbilt fans are comfortable with his replacement at cornerback, sophomore Casey Hayward, but what about Moore’s other two roles? Jamie Graham will handle both kickoff and punt returning duties (as he did at times last year), and he is capable of breaking off a big gain. Still, Jamie won’t garner the “kick it out of bounds” respect that D.J. earned. On offense, Vanderbilt doesn’t have enough weapons as is, let alone the luxury of employing a decoy.

4. Protecting the Football. Vanderbilt had a +13 turnover margin in their 7 wins (20-7) and a -4 margin in their 6 losses (10-14). Despite closing the athleticism and talent gap with the rest of the conference, Vanderbilt can’t afford to be careless with the ball. Given the team’s difficulty in scoring last season (they failed to score a TD in the first half of 5 of their last 6 games), this is even more crucial. Vanderbilt’s got a stout defense (15th nationally in turnovers created and 21st in scoring defense in 2008), but if they have to defend on a short field more often than not, there is only so much they can do.

5. Offensive Production. Vanderbilt has a very solid defense. Unfortunately, the offense has not kept up. Finishing 117th in Division I last season, Vanderbilt has to get more out of their offense if the team is going bowling this year. It all starts with the quarterback, who as of now is unknown. Larry Smith is the great hope of Commodore Nation after his performance in the Music City Bowl. The fact that Vanderbilt implemented the same no-huddle spread offense Smith ran in high school while earning Mr. Football Alabama honors has boosted speculation that he’ll be QB1. Whomever the playcaller is, he’ll need support. While the wide receiver ails have been addressed in Key 1, Vanderbilt fans are hoping for some consistent punch going out of the backfield. Senior Jared Hawkins has shown glimmers of brilliance, but seems to be constantly battling injury. Even healthy, Jared is not a “big play” threat (he only had one carry over 25 yards last year). Vanderbilt needs a second runner to form an effective 1-2 punch. Who will that be? Again, that’s not clear. Freshman Wesley Tate, a 6’2, 210 lbs. running back very well might be the guy to transform Vanderbilt’s attack, but don’t be surprised if freshman Zac Stacy (5′11, 192 lbs.) doesn’t also get a serious look. The battle for 2 will be one of the fiercest in camp and is definitely something to watch. But no matter who has the rock and how durable he is, he’ll need a better showing from the O-line than we saw last year, when Vandy allowed an average of 2 sacks and nearly 7 tackles for loss per game.

In our view, personnel issues notwithstanding, the single biggest factor in generating offense will be Offensive Coordinator Ted Cain’s decision making. We’ve aired grievances about Cain’s thoroughly unimaginative game plans ad nauseum at VSL, but suffice it to say we’re excited about the possibility of a no-huddle offense that gives marginally more play-calling control to the players on the field, even if the signal caller is relatively inexperienced. Moving the chains has been a serious issue–note, for example, that the Music City Bowl MVP was a punter. Vanderbilt was 114th in FBS in first down offense (14.77/game) and 108th in 3rd down conversion percentage (31.52%) last season. But we’re encouraged by the fact that Vanderbilt seems to know how to score when put in position to do so. The ‘Dores ranked 3rd in the SEC and 17th nationally in red zone efficiency in 2008, and we’re optimistic that a new offensive package will make those red-zone appearances less of a rarity.

For a more thorough review of the 2009 Commodores, check out VSL’s Offensive, Defensive/Special Teams, and Schedule Previews at Vanderbilt Sports Line. You can also follow us on twitter at

No comments: