HOOVER, Ala. — Vanderbilt receiver George Smith considers himself incredibly lucky to be playing football.
After all, it wasn't long ago that the senior was in a hospital bed in an intensive care unit. He had been diagnosed with transverse myelitis, a rare neurological disorder caused by an inflammation of the spine. And Smith, who was a redshirt freshman at the time, wasn't sure if would ever walk again.
"My whole outlook on life has just completely changed," Smith said at Southeastern Conference Media Days last month. "When something like that happens to you, you have bad days, it's like, ‘Hey, I've been through worse.'"
He spent six weeks in the hospital in 2004, lost 30 pounds and needed a year-and-a-half of rehabilitation. His comeback has been an inspiration for Vanderbilt the past four seasons.
But Smith will face a big challenge on the field in 2008. The school's record-breaking receiver, Earl Bennett, has graduated, leaving the offense with a gaping hole out wide.
It's one coach Bobby Johnson is hoping Smith can help fill.
"We're not going to have a guy probably who's going to catch 70, 80 passes like Earl did," Johnson said. "But we're going to have some guys who are ready to step up."
Smith has proven he can succeed in a starting role after finishing second on the team in catches (32), yards (397) and touchdowns (3) last season. He showed plenty of potential in the final game of the season, catching seven passes for 94 yards against Wake Forest.
Now, Smith is hoping he can live up to the challenge and help Vandy reach a bowl game. But Smith knows better than anyone what happens in 2008 won't be life or death.
"I don't take anything for granted," Smith said. "When I'm having bad days, I have pictures in my phone from when I was laid up in the bed to help remind me I've been through the worst. It definitely made me a stronger person and made me feel like I can battle through anything."
DIFFERENCE MAKER: Cornerback D.J. Moore will be the face of the program this season after receiver Earl Bennett moved on to the NFL. The good news is that Moore fits the part. Moore was tied for the SEC lead in interceptions (6) and was one of its top return men. The multi-talented player has earned first-team, All-SEC honors for his defensive work and is also getting some work at receiver this preseason.
RISING STAR: The Commodores lost experience at linebacker with the departures of Jonathan Goff and Marcus Buggs. The losses leave the only other linebacker with starting experience — Patrick Benoist — expected to step into a bigger role. Benoist started four games last year.
BIGGEST STRENGTH: Vanderbilt's secondary — with Moore leading the way — should be strong. Safety Reshard Langford, another all-SEC candidate, is a big hitter who had 66 tackles in 2007. Junior Myron Lewis also returns to his starting spot at cornerback giving the ‘Dores experience.
BIGGEST QUESTION: Is Chris Nickson back? The senior struggled last season after a shoulder separation. He played sparingly the last half of the season and Mackenzi Adams took over. Nickson is healthy this preseason and fighting for the starting job with Adams. If he wins it and returns to form, the Commodores could have some life.
MARK YOUR CALENDAR: One of the few bright spots in Vandy's SEC schedule last year was its 17-6 win at South Carolina. The Commodores will get a chance to make it two in a row when the Gamecocks come to Nashville on Sept. 4. It will be the SEC opener, giving Vandy a chance to get off on the right foot in conference play.
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