Vanderbilt's passing game will obviously not be the same with the loss of first round draft pick Jay Cutler. Cutler was able to take advantage of the talent at wide receiver and convert it into big plays. Unfortunately replacing his production may be mission impossible. The quarterback that will get the first crack at replacing him is Chris Nickson, a speedy runner with a good enough arm to play the position. Nickson is a former Mr. Alabama football player who has the tools to be a playmaker, but lacks game experience. Nickson is much faster than Cutler, but just doesn’t have the seasoned decision making and savvy of the Commodore legend.
Fresh off of securing the starting cornerback job opposite of Hall, Michigan sophomore Charles Stewart will have a tough test handling either 6’3 George Smith or 6’4 Marlon White. Stewart’s strength is playing physical, so it will be key for him to not get out muscled by the bigger wide outs. White and Smith were both productive last season and White in particular is a threat in the red zone. Bryant Anderson, a 6-3 back-up receiver, could also be a challenge for the secondary. The depth behind Hall and Stewart has more speed than it does physicality, so the bigger wide outs may present problems for Morgan Trent, Brandon Harrison and Johnny Sears.
Another key for the Wolverines will be putting pressure on quarterback Chris Nickson and forcing him to make quick decisions. Tackles Brian Stamper and Chris Williams are better pass blockers than they are run blockers. Michigan’s defensive ends LaMarr Woodley and Tim Jamison are better at rushing the passer than defending the run. That means this should be an interesting match up to watch as well. Michigan defensive tackles Alan Branch and Terrence Taylor should be able to get a push up the middle against an interior line that should be vulnerable.
Overall, the depth at wide receiver for Vanderbilt is respectable, but just how productive they are will be up to Nickson. I would expect some spread formations to get more of the talented wide outs on the field and test Michigan's secondary…which on paper is the weakest of the home team's defense. Given the fact Nickson has practically no game experience, and Michigan has a great cornerback in Leon Hall to go along with what should be a hard-charging front, the Wolverines should be able to keep this unit in check.
Vanderbilt rush offense Vs. Michigan rush defense
Key Match up: Vanderbilt interior offensive line against Michigan interior defensive line
Jeff Jennings was Vanderbilt's top rusher last year, but he suffered a devastating injury against Kentucky last year and will likely miss the 2006 season. As a result the Commodores are expecting 6-0, 225-pound Cassen Jackson-Garrison to play. However, his health is also in question after having undergone an emergency appendectomy during training camp. If he is ready to go, Vanderbilt has a fairly solid between-the-tackles type rusher to work with. If Jackson-Garrison is unable to go, or is limited, expect redshirt freshman Jared Hawkins to fill in. At 5-10, 190 pounds, Hawkins isn’t nearly as big as Jackson-Garrison, but he offers more elusiveness and agility.
Fullback Steven Bright is more in the mold of a tight end playing fullback. Bright is very productive receiver out of the backfield but needs to improve his blocking. Bright will be facing a very tough match up with one of the Big Ten’s best middle linebackers in David Harris. The offensive line will have a tough time with a Michigan defensive line that is being hyped as one of the best the school has had in quite some time. Nose tackle Terrence Taylor is a first-year starter but is coming off a strong training camp and has the physical skill to really breakout this year. Alan Branch is an absolute load to block at 6’6, 310 pounds and many Michigan offensive lineman claim he is the toughest lineman to handle on the team. The strength of the Vanderbilt line is on the corners with Brian Stamper and Chris Williams. They should provide test for Michigan’s rotation at defensive end.
Middle linebacker David Harris should help shut down the middle while Shawn Crable and Chris Graham offer a lot of range for the Wolverines on the edge. The Wolverines simply have too much talent for the Commodores to mount a consistent rushing threat.
Michigan Pass Offense vs. Vanderbilt Pass Defense
Key Match up: Vanderbilt pass rush against Michigan pass protection
After ranking dead last in the SEC in sacks last season, the Vanderbilt defensive line will need to step up and produce more sacks. The team’s top defensive end David Carter transferred so there hasn’t been much good news for this unit. The silver lining may be senior defensive end Chris Booker. After struggling with injuries early last year, Booker finally got healthy and played well down the stretch. It will be key for him to step up become a consistent pass rusher.
Starting opposite of Booker is converted linebacker, Curtis Gatewood. He is expected to bring more athleticism to the position. Steve Stone, a 6’6, 250 pound redshirt freshman will also see time in the rotation. Somehow this unit needs to pressure Chad Henne if they are going to have any chance of stopping the Michigan passing game. Despite the question marks up front for the Wolverines, consistently putting heat on the Wolverines third-year signal caller will be too tall a task for the Commodores.
Michigan offensive tackle Jake Long is a very strong pass protector and should be on top of his game after losing over 20 pounds during the off season. Long was moved to left tackle to protect Chad Henne’s blindside and expect him to do so. The key will be right tackle Rueben Riley. The Grand Rapids native is a more natural guard but showed that he can be a capable tackle when he shut down Penn State’s Tamba Hali last year.
The Vanderbilt secondary is led by stud safety Reshard Langford. Langford was the “Earl Bennett” of the defense last year, having had a stellar freshman campaign. Langford had 54 tackles, three interceptions, three-and-a-half TFLs, and four pass break-ups in 2005. For the secondary to be improved, the other positions must step up. Senior Sean Dixon and sophomore Josh Allen will start at cornerback. Dixon suffered through injuries last year but is the better athlete of the two. Jared Fagen will likely come in on nickel situations. Fagen has pretty good athletic ability but inconsistent play has led to a decreased role to start the season. Free safety Ryan Hamilton could be a star in the making. Coaches rave about his range but he lacks game experience and will have to learn on the fly against a tough Michigan team. The depth is shaky here and could be exploited in larger wide receiver sets.
Ultimately, if the Commodore front cannot pressure Chad Henne, the secondary won’t be able to contain Michigan’s speedy wide receivers. Steve Breaston and Mario Manningham have game breaking ability and will test any defensive back athletically. The Commodores will also have to keep an eye on 6’3 Adrian Arrington. Arrington will likely see time as the Wolverines third wideout and may be the most complete pas-catcher on the roster. After suffering an ankle injury last year, Arrington will be looking for his first meaningful game experience. Michigan also has depth at the tight end position with Tyler Ecker and Mike Massey. If both are healthy, they are reliable receivers.
Michigan Rush Offense vs. Vanderbilt Rush Defense
The Vanderbilt interior line has the potential to be solid. Junior Theo Horrocks performed well down the stretch last season and is hoping that added bulk over the offseason will help him be more successful against the run. He may be the best defender on the front line. Senior Ray Brown will start next to him after an injury filled 2005 season. Brown has the ability to be a solid run stopper but he needs to stay healthy if the Commodores are to be successful. Expect junior Gabe Hall and true freshman Greg Billinger to possibly see time at defensive tackle as well.
Rueben Riley & Adam Kraus
The tougher match up should come against the Vanderbilt linebackers. The Commodores happen to have an athletic unit. The team lost standout Moses Osemwegie but returns a strong performer in middle linebacker Jonathan Goff. The 6’4 Goff recorded 63 tackles last season and played very physical. Expect him to give Michigan backfield tandem of Obi Oluigbo and Mike Hart an early test. Strongside linebacker Marcus Buggs is undersized and could be taken advantage of in the run game. Weak side linebacker Kevin Joyce has experience but finds himself out of position too often and not making enough plays. He could be the weakest spot amongst the group.
Expect Michigan to use its advantage up front and their variety in the backfield to deal out a very productive ground game against the Commodores.
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