PREVIEWING THE SEC: Vanderbilt Commodores

Going 5-6 a year ago and beating perennial South Eastern Conference power Tennessee to end the year, Vanderbilt's football team, under fifth-year head coach Bobby Johnson, will look to build upon to positives of last season and become a contender in the SEC east.

The biggest task awaiting Johnson and the Commodores in 2006 is finding a replacement for quarterback Jay Cutler; the four-year starter and first round NFL draft pick who shattered the Vanderbilt record books during his career.


In the absence of Cutler, the program will rely on the play of 14 returning starters to lead to squad to success this season.


Leading the way for the Commodore offense wide receiver Earl Bennett (6-1, 202, So.), who led the team with 876 receiving yards and nine touchdowns last year to earn Freshman All-SEC and first-team All-SEC honors as the conference's leading wide out at the end of the regular season.


Also returning to the receiving corps is Marlon White (6-4, 205, Sr.), who has held a starting role at the positions the past two seasons. As a junior, White caught for 350 yards and six touchdowns, bringing his career total to 11 scoring catches.


George Smith (6-3, 195, So.) looks to be the third starting receiver for the Commodores, finishing as a starter and accumulating 287 yards and two touchdowns in 2005.


At tight end, Vanderbilt will be searching for a new face following the departure of veteran Dustin Dunning. Leading the race for the job is Brad Allen (6-4, 240, So.); though redshirt freshmen Jake Bradford (6-6, 250) and Thomas Welch (6-6, 255) will also be trying to claim the starting role.


Returning to the Commodore ground game in 2006 will be the tailback tandem of Cassen Jackson-Garrison (6-1, 225, Jr.) and Jeff Jennings (6-1, 228, Jr.). Jackson-Garrison led the team in rushing last season with 579 yards and eight touchdowns, while Jennings served as the team's starter at the position before ending his season early due to injury. He ended the year with 476 yards and seven scores on the ground, as well as 156 receiving yards for one touchdown.


At fullback, Vanderbilt will bring back last year's starter, Steven Bright (6-4, 240, Sr.) a former quarterback who moved to fullback prior to the 2005 season. He filled his new position well last season, proving to be an effective blocker and bringing in 198 receiving yards on the year.


On the offensive line, the Commodores boast the return of starters Brian Stamper (6-5, 305, Sr.) and Chris Williams (6-7, 320, Jr.) at the tackles and Josh Eames (6-5, 3`0, Jr.) at guard.


Hamilton Holliday (6-3, 292, Jr.) will take over the role of starting center this fall, while the early favorite for the open guard position is Merritt Kirchoffer (6-5, 320, Jr.), whose time last season was limited by a shoulder injury.


The race for head signal caller in Cutler's absence remains open, with Chris Nickson (6-1, 210, So.) and Mackenzi Adams (6-2, 205, So.) sharing time during the spring. Nickson holds a slight edge over Adams after serving as the backup in 2005, when he threw just three passes in five appearances.


Defensively, the Commodores return six starters to the field, including half of last year's defensive line in tackle Theo Horrocks (6-3, 290, Jr.) and end Chris Booker (6-4, 260, Sr.). Booker finished his junior year with 30 tackles and tied for a team-best three sacks, while Horrocks contributed 21 tackles and one sack to the effort in 2005.


Joining the returnees on the front line will be David Carter (6-4, 260, Jr.), who had 10 tackles in 11 appearances last season, at end, and Ray Brown (6-3, 300, Sr.) at tackle, though the tackle job may also fall to Gabe Hall (6-1, 305, Jr.), who coaches say had a stellar off-season.


Kevin Joyce (6-3, 224, Sr.) and Jonathan Goff (6-4, 240, Jr.) will come back to anchor the linebacker trio in 2006, while Marcus Buggs (6-0, 234, Jr.) is the likely replacement for All-SEC selection Moses Osemwegie at outside linebacker.


Goff finished third on the team last season with 63 tackles, while Joyce finished with 47 and Buggs with 29.


The Vanderbilt secondary will bring back Josh Allen (5-9, 184, So.) and Jared Fagen (5-9, 180, So.) at cornerback, and Reshard Langford (6-2, 218, So.) at strong safety, all of whom received starts last year.


Langford led the Commodores in 2005 with three interceptions, while Allen had a Vandy-best five pass break ups. Fagen made his name known at the end of last season when he intercepted a pass in the final seconds to secure the victory over Tennessee.


Ryan Hamilton (6-1, 208, Fr.) and Ben Koger (6-0, 200, Sr.) look to compete for the starting job at free safety after Hamilton put forth a stand out performance in practice during his red shirt season.


On special teams, Bryant Hahnfeldt (5-11, 185, So.) will return as the punter and place kicker after having knee surgery during the off season. Hahanfeldt was 12-17 on field goal attempts and 32-33 on extra points in 2005.





All-Time Series: 20-7-1


Stadium: Vanderbilt (39,773)


First Meeting: 1902, Vanderbilt 27, LSU 5


Last Meeting: 2005, LSU 34, Vanderbilt 6


Head Coach: Bobby Johnson, 11-35 at VU

          71-71 Overall, 12 years


2005 in Review: 5-6, 3-5 SEC


Final '05 Ranking: Not ranked


Off. / Def. Systems: Multiple / 4-3


Returning Starters: 15; 7 offense, 6 defense, kicker, punter


Last Bowl Appearance: 1982 Hall of Fame Bowl


Last Conference Championship: 1923 Southern Conference





Rushing: Jackson-Garrison – 97 rushes, 539 yards, 8 TD


Passing: Chris Nickson – 3-1-0, 13 yards, 0 TD


Receiving: Earl Bennett – 79 catches, 876 yards, 9 TD


Tackles: Jonathan Goff – 63 TT (47S, 16A)





Date                 Opponent                     '05 Result


S-2                  Michigan                      ---


S-9                  at Alabama                   ---


S-16                Arkansas                     W, 28-24


S-23                Tennessee State            ---


S-30                Temple                         ---


O-7                  at Ole Miss                   L, 31-23


O-14                at Georgia                    L, 34-17


O-21                South Carolina               L, 35-28


O-28                at Duke                        ---


N-4                  Florida                         L, 49-42 (2ot)


N-11                at Kentucky                  L, 48-43


N-18                Tennessee                    W, 28-24





Jay Cutler is gone but Vanderbilt is loaded with athletes and speed.  Bobby Johnson has systematically improved these important team aspects since his arrival at Vanderbilt four years ago.  Think Vanderbilt will be starting again from scratch with a new, inexperienced quarterback?  Think again.  Johnson took advantage of a new NCAA rule and secured the transfer of Arizona quarterback Richard Kovalcheck. Kovalcheck passed for 1,351 yards for the Wildcats in 2005 and nearly led them to a victory over USC.  He is eligible immediately.


Of course you've heard a lot about Cutler but you may not have heard of wide receiver Earl Bennett. Bennett, a true freshman in 2005, was Cutler's primary target and snared 79 of his passes.  Incredibly, in Vanderbilt's last four games Bennett had 49 catches for 9 touchdowns. 


Offensive lineman Brian Stamper is a veteran who is on the Outland Trophy watch list.  Cassen Jackson-Garrison will be Vanderbilt's primary running back, but Vandy's biggest impact newcomer could be redshirt freshman running back Jared Hawkins.  The tough Hawkins possesses blazing speed and benches 340 pounds.  True freshman TE/FB Jonathan Massey could also be an impact player.


Defensively Reshard Langford is an emerging star.  The strong safety had three interceptions in 2006 and made the All-SEC Freshman team.  Junior linebacker and captain Jonathan Goff may contend for postseason honors as well.  Johnson speaks highly of redshirt freshman free safety Ryan Hamilton.   Incoming freshman defensive lineman Greg Billinger could provide instant help. 


- Don Yates,

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