Vanderbilt Preview

The Vanderbilt Commodores are coming off their first bowl win since 1955, a mark of success that head coach Bobby Johnson hopes to reach once again in 2009. And, what better way to start than a conference opener in Death Valley?

Snapshot:

Vanderbilt Commodores

2008 record: 7-6 (4-4 SEC, T-3rd East)

Head coach: Bobby Johnson (87-92, 15 years)

Returning Starters: 18: 8 offense, 9 defense, and punter

Leaders on Each Side: Offense: RB Jared Hawkins, Defense: CB Myron Lewis


The Commodore’s 2008 win over Boston College marked the program’s first bowl victory in 53 years, which gave the gold and black faithful in Nashville something to cheer about in December for the first time in Johnson’s tenure.

2009 is a new season with new faces on the other side of the ball. Fortunately, the Commodores return many of the same faces.

Vanderbilt brings back eight starters on offense and nine on defense, highlighted by the return of all the starters to both sides of the line. That should give sophomore quarterback Larry Smith some room for development, as the gunslinger did not land the starting job until the final two games of 2008.

The return of a healthy Jared Hawkins adds strength to the running game, which should also give Smith some breathing room.

A defense that allowed under 20 points a game returns nine starters – though the two names missing are perhaps the biggest: D.J. Moore and Reshard Langdon. The rest of the gang will need to come up big during the squads run through the conference if they hope to bowl once more, for the Commodore offense could struggle without an experienced arm under center.

 

Quarterback

Larry Smith – 6’2”, 216, So.

Mackenzi Adams – 6’3”, 212, Sr.


Smith’s big showing came in the Music City Bowl, where the Prattville, Ala.-native was 10-of-17 passing for 121 yards. The performance gave the struggling Commodores just their second victory in the teams’ final eight games.

Johnson hopes to stick with Smith, but the headman is never hesitant to make the call for his backup. Come September, the first man off the bench should be Mackenzi Adams – a senior who has logged minutes in each of the last three seasons.

 

Running Back

Jared Hawkins – 5’10”, 195, Sr.

Kennard Reeves – 6’0”, 222, Jr.

 

Jared Hawkins, who rushed for a team high 593 yards on 139 carries in 2008, returns to the line up after being sidelined through the spring with a foot injury.

Kennard Reeves, Gaston Miller and Jermaine Doster all look to land carries behind the senior. Their expected level of production remains a mystery, as Reeves and Miller combined for just 87 yards in 2008, while Doster sat out the season on suspension.

The offensive line returns all five starters from the December bowl game, and with a questionable passing attack, the Commodores will rely heavily on the production of Hawkins and Co. to help put points on the board – and keep the Vanderbilt defense on the bench.

 

Wide Receivers and Tight End

Alex Washington – 5’10”, 182, Sr.

Udom Umoh – 6’0”, 172, So.

Tray Herndon – 5’10”, 182, So.

John Cole – 5’11, 170, Fr.

Terence Jeffers – 6’2”, 225, Jr.

TE Brandon Barden – 6’5”, 245, So.

 

Sean Walker, who led the Commodores with 36 catches for 520 yards last fall, is lost to graduation – which leaves tight end Brandon Barden as the top returning pass catcher.

Barden hauled in 28 passes for 209 yards and a team-high four touchdowns from the spot in 2008, and Johnson will bank on the sophomore’s production in a big way once again this fall.

The Commodores do not return a single starter at wide receiver, which could spell trouble in a hurry for Smith under center. Transfers Tray Herndon (Minnesota) and Terence Jeffers (Connecticut) should provide some relief, but questions remain across the chart.

 

Offensive Line

Reilly Lauer – 6’6”, 275, Jr.

Kyle Fischer – 6’6”, 308, So.

Bradley Vierling – 6’3”, 294, Sr.

Eric Hensley – 6’6”, 315, Sr.

Thomas Welch – 6’7”, 310, Sr.

 

Lauer, a one-time defensive end, has made the transition nicely to the offensive side of the ball, where he earned the start at left tackle. The successful switch allowed Johnson to slide Kyle Fisher to left guard, who impressed during his freshman campaign last fall.

Eric Hensley also made the move from tackle to guard, which allowed room for Thomas Welch to work alone at tackle. With captain and senior leader Bradley Vierling back at center, the Commodore offensive line – with five returning starters – is the clear-cut strong suit of the bunch.

 

Defensive Line

Broderick Stewart – 6’5”, 228, Sr.

Greg Billinger – 6’4”, 287, Sr.

Adam Smotherman – 6’4”, 290, Jr.

Steven Stone – 6’5”, 272, Sr.

 

The Commodores defensive line is just as experienced as their offensive counterpart. The unit has four starters returning, three of which are seniors. Needless to say, expectations are high.

The chief pass rusher is Broderick Stewart, who was sidelined in 2008 after breaking his leg in a November loss to in-state rival Tennessee. Steven Stone can be just as explosive on the opposite side, and Greg Billinger and Adam Smotherman complement the rush well with a dominating inside presence.


Linebackers

John Stokes – 6’5”, 228, Jr.

Chris Marve – 6’0”, 228, So.

Patrick Benoist – 6’0”, 220, Sr.

 

The linebacker corps is also made up of all returning starters, with sophomore Chris Marve and senior Patrick Benoist tabbed as the leading pair. The two tallied over 100 tackles each in 2008, good for the top two marks on the team.

John Stokes has gotten looks at strong side linebacker, but expect Brent Trice to see significant minutes at the spot. Stokes logged 31 stops in a starting role last fall, while Trice recorded 22 tackles off the bench.

 

Defensive Backs

Myron Lewis – 6’3”, 205, Sr.

Casey Hayward – 6’0”, 180, So.

Ryan Hamilton – 6’2”, 208, Sr.

Sean Richardson – 6’2”, 198, So.


With D.J. Moore and Reshard Langford lost to the NFL, Myron Lewis will have the pressure on his shoulders to lead a defensive backfield that returns two starters from 2008. Lewis – who has notched 25 consecutive starts at corner - logged a team-high five sacks last season.

Ryan Hamilton, the team’s third leading tackler (104 total) in 2008, is the other returning starter. The new faces, Casey Hayward and Sean Richardson, will be the big players to watch in terms of output.

If Hayward impresses early, he should stay on the field. If not, fellow sophomore Jamie Graham is nipping at his heels. Richardson, who replaces Lanford at safety, was in on just 11 tackles during his freshman campaign in 2008.


Special Teams

Ryan Fowler – 5’10”, 165, Fr.

Brett Upson – 5’11”, 188, Sr.


Brett Upson, who was mighty impressive during the Commodores bowl run last fall, returns at the punter spot. The junior averaged 40.4 yards a boot in 2008, with 24 punts dropped inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.

Ryan Fowler, who took a redshirt during his freshman campaign, gets his first taste at handling the field goal duties. With an impressive spring behind him, Fowler looks to be the man for kickoffs as well.


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