For Vanderbilt, optimism was high in the preseason. The staff was adopting a no-huddle offensive philosophy. Eighteen starters were back along with wide receiver Terrence Jeffers, a transfer from Connecticut who caught 44 passes two years ago as a sophomore up north. However, Jeffers was ruled academically ineligible and to make matters even worse a second projected starting wide receiver, Larry Simmons, was hurt on the first day of spring practice. It's been a rocky road this season for the Commodores. Things looked good in the opener when Vanderbilt gained over 600 yards in a 45-0 win over Western Carolina. However, the next week at LSU the ‘Dores showed little offensively, falling 23-9. Still, it was LSU on the road and not many do well there anyway so Vandy fans still had hope. Unfortunately the next game, against Mississippi State in Nashville, VU fans knew the team had some problems. The Bulldogs shut down the Vandy offense and pulled off a 15-3 win. Since then, other than a victory at winless Rice, it's been more of the same, a decent Commodore defense but not much offensive punch.
First let's take a look at the offense. Mackenzi Adams is a fifth year senior who should be among the top 10 career passers in Vanderbilt history by the end of the season. He has almost 2,500 career passing yards as a career backup. He started his first game last week against Florida, passing for 100 yards and an interception. He's got a decent arm and good mobility. The coaches opted to go with Larry Smith at quarterback at the start of the season, he had started Vanderbilt's bowl win over Boston College. However, Smith struggled most of the season and although it wasn't his entire fault, a lot of it was his fault. Smith started the first nine games, completing 46 percent of his passes, before injuring a hamstring against Georgia Tech.
Wide receiver has been the big problem area this season. After the loss of Simmons to injury in the spring and facing the growing likelihood that they'd lose Jeffers, the Commodore staff had to go sign an additional wide receiver, Collin Ashley, in April. John Cole, a Kentuckian, who set some receiving records up there, is the one receiver that probably would have started the season even if all the other receivers had been capable of playing. He's a great player who has 27 catches on the season. He's got great skills, hands and speed but this is essentially his first year playing college ball. He's done well though even outplaying his fellow receivers despite playing with a broken hand for a couple games. After him, there is not much breakaway speed that a quarterback can count on. Redshirt sophomore Udom Umoh has 17 catches. Senior Alex Washington has 11. Tight end Brandon Barden (22 catches) has played well but has had some lapses himself, dropping a several against Georgia Tech a couple weeks ago. Ashley, mentioned above, has done decent as a backup, catching 9 passes.
Tailback is a solid position for Vanderbilt. The Commodores, like Kentucky, are pretty good at running the ball, averaging about 170 yards per game. Jared Hawkins is another veteran who was set to start at the beginning of the season but injuries have kept him sidelined most of the season. However, Vandy has found two outstanding true freshmen back in Warren Norman and Zac Stacy who have rushed for almost 1,100 yards combined. Stacy was the starter at the beginning of the season but sprained an ankle a few games back and Norman because the starter. Both have blazing speed and quick feet with the ability to break tackles and take it all the way.
The offensive line has been a sore spot for the Commodores. Injuries have been a problem here too. The Commodores lost their best run blocker, James Williams, for the season against LSU. Left tackle Thomas Welch, considered one of team's top NFL prospects for the coming draft, did not play against Florida and his status is uncertain for the UK game. Right tackle Reilly Lauer took over for James Williams and while he has solid technique he is undersized at 275 pounds. Guards Kyle Fischer and Eric Hensley are both about 6-foot-6 and weigh over 300 pounds and are both decent players. Center Bradley Vierling is veteran player who is a team captain this year and was last year too.
While Vandy's offense is not a solid SEC unit by any means their defense can play with the big boys and would do even better if they didn't have to stay on the field so long because of the offense.
The Vandy linebacker corps is solid with Chris Marve at middle linebacker. Not huge at 6-foot 228, he has 72 tackles and 3 forced fumbles this season. Patrick Benoist is another solid backer for ‘Dores. He's about the same size as Marve and has 59 tackles, three sacks and an interception. The other linebacker is Brent Trice who is taller (6-3, 214) than Marve or Benoist but probably faster than the other two. He beat out John Stokes, who started at the position last year, in preseason practice.
The Vanderbilt secondary was considered one of the best in the SEC before the season started. Cornerback Myron Lewis is a possible first round draft pick because scouts like his size (6-3, 202) and speed. Lewis has 9 interceptions during his career and 25 passes broken up. The other corner is sophomore Casey Hayward who took over when D.J. Moore left for the NFL after last season. Although he's not the big play-maker that Moore was on special teams and sometimes on offense he has performed soundly in the secondary against both the pass and run. The Vandy secondary has also not been without its injuries. The Commodores lost free safety Ryan Hamilton during the LSU game for the season. However, fifth year senior Joel Caldwell has filled in admirably for Hamilton. Caldwell doesn't pack as hard of a hit as Hamilton but he's done fine with his coverage skills. The strong safety position is in good hands as well with sophomore Sean Richardson.
The Vanderbilt defensive line is right now probably the deepest it's been in the last 25 years. By "right now" I mean even stronger than it was only a few weeks ago. The Commodores took a big loss when veteran defensive end Steven Stone was injured during preseason drills. He was expected to miss the first four games but ended up missing seven games. Back now, last week in Gainesville he sacked Tim Tebow and also had another tackle for a loss. At 6-foot-5, 275 pounds he has the size along with the quickness to terrorize opposing quarterbacks. The other end spot is manned by veteran Broderick Stewart who while smaller than Stone (6-5, 228), he has lightening speed. Stewart and Stone have 28 career sacks between the two of them. Backups Theron Kadri and Tim Fugger have seen extensive action this season. Junior Adam Smotherman and senior Greg Billinger fill the tackle positions. T.J. Greenstone is a solid backup who plays often and is considered the strongest player on the VU team.
Redshirt freshman kicker Ryan Fowler has made 11-of-16 field goals this season. His longest has been from 41 yards. Senior Brett Upson averages 43 yards a punt and has downed the ball many times inside opponent's five-yard-line. Warren Norman is probably the biggest story on the Vanderbilt team this season. Norman has returned three kickoffs for touchdowns this season and set an SEC record for kickoff return yardage in a season. Alex Washington returns punts at a 5-yard per return average. He is the only return man to return a punt on Florida this season.
Here's to a great game on Saturday. Hope you have a safe trip down to Nashville.