By Don Yates
Fresh off their first bowl victory since 1955, the Vanderbilt football team has much to be excited about in 2009. The Commodores return 17 starters, including nine on defense and eight on offense. However, despite the large number of returnees Bobby Johnson and his staff must find key replacements in the receiving corps and defensive secondary.
The Vanderbilt staff worked hard during the spring to make the Commodore offense more productive. They experimented with a no-huddle, spread offense that could very well be employed during the 2009 season. After spring drills senior quarterback Mackenzi Adams and sophomore Larry Smith were in a dead heat for the starting spot. Adams started three games last year and led Vanderbilt to victories over Auburn and in 2007 guided the Commodores to an upset win at South Carolina. The younger Smith played well at Wake Forest and started in the Commodores' historic win over Boston College in the Music City Bowl. Senior tailback Jared Hawkins, who rushed for almost 600 yards in 2008, returns to pace the Commodore ground attack. However, look for Gaston Miller and Kennard Reeves to also play. Two incoming heralded freshmen, Zach Stacy and Warren Norman, could also get into the mix.
Vanderbilt must replace veteran receivers Sean Walker and George Smith who have graduated. To make matters worse, a third starting receiver, Justin Wheeler, suffered a serious injury the first day of spring drills. The Commodores return senior Alex Washington who missed '08 due to injury. Sophomore Udom Umoh should get ample playing time.
Redshirt freshman John Cole, who earned playing time as a freshman but was hurt in the 2008 opener and Terrence Jeffers, a 6-5, 220 pound junior who sat out the 2008 season after transferring from Connecticut, should also contribute at receiver. Jeffers led the Huskies in receptions with 44 as a sophomore in 2007. Big Austin Monahan started the first three games at tight end for Vanderbilt in 2008, but an injury ended his season. Brandon Barden, who transferred to Vandy from Virginia Tech, took over for Monahan and proved to be an outstanding player, catching 28 passes for four touchdowns. Vanderbilt returns its entire offensive line for 2009. Senior captain Bradley Vierling returns at center and has 13 career starts. Redshirt senior right tackle Thomas Welch (6-7, 310), anchors the offensive line. Left tackle looks to be manned by junior Reilly Lauer whom coaches say has outstanding technique. Redshirt sophomore Kyle Fischer is penciled in at left guard and senior Eric Hensley at right guard.
The defense was Vanderbilt's strength in 2008 and that should not change in 2009. Vanderbilt finished '08 rated 29th nationally in scoring defense and 30th in total defense. The linebacker corps returns intact with junior John Stokes (SLB), sophomore Chris Marve (MLB) and senior Patrick Benoist (WLB) all back. Benoist and Marve were the team's top two tacklers.
The defensive line will be experienced and deep with talent. Defensive tackles Greg Billinger (6-4, 287, Sr.) and Adam Smotherman (6-4, 290, Jr.) both played well in 2008, combining for 4.5 sacks. The defensive ends will be redshirt seniors Steven Stone (6-5, 272) and Broderick Stewart (6-5, 225). Stewart and Stone combined for 10 sacks in 2008. Look for junior Tim Fugger and sophomore Theron Kadri to back them up. Vanderbilt's secondary was considered one of the best in the nation in 2008. Gone to the NFL is cornerback D.J. Moore but the very athletic Jamie Graham, who was moved from defense to wide receiver in 2008, will move back to defense to replace Moore. Myron Lewis, a 2008 All-SEC pick, will return to the other cornerback spot. Lewis had five interceptions last season. Sophomore free safety Sean Richardson played well in Vanderbilt's bowl and is expected to take over for Rashard Langford, however, don't be surprised to see senior outside linebacker Brent Trice get a look at safety, where he played before. Senior free safety Ryan Hamilton, who intercepted three passes in Vandy's win at Ole Miss, also returns for 2009.