Non-Conference Preview, Part 4

Here's another look at my preseason preview of the aspiring Vanderbilt Commodores. I'll review lost starters, expected replacements, and incoming recruits.

VANDERBILT COMMORDORES PREVIEW


Vanderbilt has long been one of the traditional doormats in college football.  The Commodores have not had a winning season in 22 years and have not played in a bowl game since that year – the 1982 Hall of Fame Bowl.  As the only private school in the Southeastern Conference, which is almost exclusively comprised of state university football factories, Vanderbilt has not been able to compete with its alleged peers in the Division IA football arms race of coaching salaries and facilities.  Very few private schools can match the financial resources of state universities that enjoy broad popular support.  Head Coach Bobby Johnson is that latest volunteer to accept the challenge of playing SEC football blindfolded and with both hands tied behind his back.  It hasn't been pretty so far.  Johnson compiled a 4-20 record during his first two seasons in Nashville and two of those victories were achieved against Division IAA opponents.  Johnson has won only one SEC game, against Kentucky last year. 

Although Vanderbilt (2-10, 1-7) struggled in the standings last year, the Commodores were atypically competitive.  The 2004 team may not be the typical Commodores as Johnson returns 21 starters – plus one kicker – from a young team that could not quite get over the hump last year.  Vanderbilt is an experienced team but still lacks depth and SEC-caliber talent.  The Commodores are poised for a rare winning season and a bowl game.  Here's a look at the aspiring Commodores of Vanderbilt. 


OFFENSE

Vanderbilt lost only one starter from an offense that was equally mediocre at running and passing.  The Commodores could move the football but struggled to score.  Johnson employs a multiple pro-set offense, including 3WR and 4WR sets, that slightly favors the passing game.  Johnson does not have a lot of talent on offense but he does have an experienced if unheralded QB to run the unit.  Vanderbilt's 2003 offensive statistics are summarized below:

  • 145 rushing yards per game (#67 of 117 in Division 1A)
  • 207 passing yards per game (#69 in Division 1A)
  • 352 total yards per game (#78 in Division 1A)
  • 20 points per game (#97 in Division 1A)


Two-year starter RS Jr QB Jay Cutler (187 of 327 for 2,347 yards, 18 TDs, and 13 INTs plus 115 carries for 299 yards) returns to pilot the Commodore offense.  He has good mobility and a strong arm but his decision-making is suspect.  RS So QB Steven Bright (6 of 14 for 57 yards) returns as Cutler's backup but lacks experience.  With a competent supporting cast, the Vanderbilt offense will mirror the performance of Cutler, perhaps the best unheralded QB in the nation. 

Vanderbilt returns four starters from the most experienced starting unit on a still young Commodore team – three-year starter and former Freshman All-American RS Sr LT Justin Geisinger, two-year starter RS Sr LG Brian Kovolisky, Jr RG Mac Pyle, and SEC All-Freshman Team RT So Brian Stamper.  Starting C Tom Sorensen is on a leave of absence for a  two-year Mormon mission.  Backup C Steven Brent was dismissed from the program during the summer for academics and third team C Chris Williams is academically ineligible.  Former backup DT RS Jr Trey Holloway was switched to center in summer camp and emerged as the starter.  RS Jr LT Ryan King and RS Jr RG Nigel Seaman are the only experienced backups.  Former two-year starter RS Sr RT Kenan Arkan, who missed most of last season with an ankle injury that required surgery in the spring, may not be available early in the season.  Backup LG RS So Adam Dossett suffered a knee injury in spring camp and also may not be available early in the year.  Third team RT Blake Luker is not listed on the current either.  RS Fr RT Elliot Hood, RS Fr LG Merritt Kirchnoffer, and true freshman C Hamilton Holliday will fill the unexpected holes in the second unit.  The starting OLine is experienced with the glaring exception of center, while the second unit is relatively experienced with a combined 20 games of playing experience. 

Vanderbilt lost only one player off its two-deep at receiver – former starting TE Nick Getter (10 receptions for 153 yards), who was displaced midway through last season.  Leading receiver Jr WR Erik Davis (41 receptions for 638 yards and 8 TDs) and second leading receiver Sr WR Brandon Smith (39 receptions for 595 yards and 2 TDs) return as starters.  RS Jr TE Dustin Dunning (12 receptions for 66 yards), who replaced Getter as the starter last season, also returns.  SEC All-Freshman Team WR So Marlin White (21 receptions for 239 yards and 3 TDs) and RS Sr WR Chris Young (15 receptions for 109 yards) return as backups.  So TE Jonathan Loyte, who switched from DT during the season, will complete the second unit.  The Commodores don't throw often to their TEs but their WRs are dangerous. 

The Commodores return intact their backfield.  Two-year starters Sr TB Norval McKenzie (162 carries for 639 yards and 5 TDs plus 15 receptions for 109 yards) and RS Jr Matthew Tant (40 carries for 140 yards plus 13 receptions for 180 yards and 4 TDs) will resume their starting roles.  Jr TB Kwane Doster (90 carries for 386 yards and 3 TDs plus 11 receptions for 82 yards) and RS Sr FB Clark Lea (7 carries for 14 yards plus 3 receptions for 39 yards) return as the backups.  The Commodore running backs are solid but not spectacular.  Both TB and FB are receiving threats out of the backfield, in which role the FBs are especially effective. 


DEFENSE

Vanderbilt returns all starters from a defense that mirrored its offense – allowing points disproportionately to yardage.  A lack of team speed appears to be the primary cause.  The Commodores employ a 4-3 scheme.  The pass defense statistics imply that the Commodores play a lot of zone defense so as not give up the big play.  Vanderbilt's 2003 defensive statistics are summarized below. 

  • 181 rushing yards per game (#84 of 117 in Division 1A)
  • 199 passing yards per game (#30 in Division 1A)
  • 380 total yards per game (#63 in Division 1A)
  • 30 points per game (#82 in Division 1A)


Vanderbilt lost only backup SS Nick Lyle (15 tackles) from its secondary two-deep.  Second leading tackler RS Jr Kelechi Ohanaja (77 tackles, 5 TFLs, 2 sacks, and 2 INTs), Jr SS Andrew Pace (74 tackles, 7 TFLs, 2 INTs, 2 FF, and 3 FR), two-year starter RS Jr CB Dominique Morris (46 tackles, 2 TFLs, and 3 INTs), and co-starting CB Sr Bill Alford (35 tackles and 3 TFLs) return as the first team.  Former co-starting CB RS Sr Lorenzo Parker (49 tackles, 4 TFLs, and 2 sacks), who was temporarily switched to WR in spring camp, returned to the defense in summer camp as a backup CB.  Backup CB RS Jr Cheron Thompson (14 tackles) and backup FS RS Jr Ronnie Swoopes (7 tackles) also return.  RS So SS Ben Koger (12 tackles) will replace Lyle as Pace's backup.  The secondary is the deepest unit on the team and the strength of the Commodore defense, led by two veteran CBs and supported by experienced backups. 

The linebacking corps was not a productive unit last year.  Leading tackler RS Jr Moses Osemwegie (102 tackles, 9 TFLs, and 2 sacks), two-year starter Jr SLB Herdley Harrison (46 tackles, 5 TFLs, and 2 FF), and RS Jr MLB Otis Washington (67 tackles and 5 TFLs) return.  Backup MLB Pat Brunner (19 tackles and 2 TFLs) did not return for a fifth season.  Backup WLB RS So Kevin Joyce (36 tackles, 4 TFLs, and 1.5 sacks) and backup SLB Sr Eric Bynum (14 tackles) return.  RS Fr MLB Jonathan Goff will replace Brunner as Washington's backup.  The Commodore LBs do not make a lot of tackles and do not make a lot plays – probably a reflection of the reported lack of speed in the Vanderbilt defense. 

With one notable exception, the Vanderbilt DLine is unimpressive.  Two-year starter, third leading tackler, and Second Team All-SEC RS Jr DE Jovan Haye (76 tackles, 13 TFLs, 9 sacks, and 3 FF) is the only true playmaker on defense.  Starting DE Jr Chris Booker (30 tackles) suffered a knee injury in spring camp and may redshirt this season.  Former two-year starting DT RS Sr Aaron Carter (19 tackles) was switched to DE during spring camp and will replace Booker in the starting lineup.  Starting DT RS Jr Reggie McKenzie (12 tackles, 3 TFLs, and 2 sacks) was demoted to the second team.  Former starting DTs RS Sr Matt Clay (25 tackles and 4 TFLs) and RS Sr Robert Dinwiddie (11 tackles and 2 TFLs) reclaimed their starting jobs.  Backup DE Libnir Telusca (9 tackles) departed and former backup DT RS Jr Trey Holloway (12 tackles) was moved to center in summer camp.  RS So DT Ray Brown will replace Holloway on the second unit.  Former backup DE RS So Richard Freeman (10 tackles) was demoted off the second team.  Fr DE David Carter and Fr DE Theo Horricks will likely complete the second team.  With the exception of Haye, the Commodore DLine lacks talent, depth, and experience. 


SPECIAL TEAMS

PR Ronald Hatcher (8 yards per return) is the only departed specialist.  Jr WR Erik Davis will likely replace Hatcher as the PR.  Two-year starter Jr KOR Kwane Doster (22 yards per return) likely will resume those duties again.  RS Sr P Abtin Iranmanesh (40 yards per punt) will again handle the punting chores.  RS So PK Patrick Johnson (1 of 2 FGAs and 9 of 9 XPAs), who earned the starting job late last season, returns as the incumbent.  The Commodore kicking game is average while the return game lacks playmakers.  The special teams reflect the rest of the team in this regard. 


SCHEDULE

Vanderbilt has an eleven game schedule with six home games.  The Commodores have one bye week – in early September – and close the season playing for ten consecutive weeks, which is a bad situation for a team lacking depth.  Vanderbilt has a favorable non-conference schedule featuring Navy, Rutgers, and Division IAA Eastern Kentucky.  Vanderbilt has the misfortune of competing in the loaded SEC East Division, so the Commodores play Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee every year.  South Carolina and Kentucky represent the only beatable division foes.  The crossover conference schedule features winnable games against Mississippi State and Mississippi (plus a visit to Louisiana State).  The home schedule includes must-win games against South Carolina, Mississippi State, Rutgers, and Eastern Kentucky.  However, if Vanderbilt is to go bowling, the Commodores must win road games at Mississippi, Navy, and Kentucky.  The key to the schedule is the first five games.  Vandy must start 5-0 if it will survive a brutal home stretch with bowl hopes intact. 

 

September 4

South Carolina

September 18

@ Mississippi

September 25

@ Navy

October 2

Mississippi State

October 9

Rutgers

October 16

@ Georgia

October 23

Eastern Kentucky

October 30

@ Louisiana State

November 6

Florida

November 13

@ Kentucky

November 20

Tennessee

 

PREDICTION

I predict the Commodores will finish 4-7 (2-6).  Vanderbilt's hopes will be dashed early with season opening losses to more talented South Carolina and Mississippi teams.  The Commodores will bounce back with wins over Navy and Mississippi State.  Losses to Rutgers and Georgia will  begin a stretch of four losses in five games, with only Division IAA Eastern Kentucky offering solace.  Vanderbilt will win find a way to win at Kentucky, which seems to find new and inventive ways to lose games each season.  Vanderbilt fans dream of ending a 22-year bowl drought.  It ain't gonna happen. 


Please send any comments to dwelch11@comcast.net.  I welcome and appreciate your feedback.  And please put "Rutgers" in the message header because I wouldn't want to miss your email in a sea of spam.  In the meantime, if you would like to discuss the unfolding season with other Rutgers fans, please visit our message board.


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