Chris Nickson's the one

Most people figured Vanderbilt would be awful in 2006 after losing star quarterback and first-round NFL Draft pick Jay Cutler to graduation. That's because most people hadn't figured on Chris Nickson.

Surprisingly enough, the Commodores can match last year's victory total (5) if they beat Tennessee Saturday in Nashville. And a big reason for their success is Chris Nickson. The 6-1, 210-pound sophomore is fifth among SEC quarterbacks in passing at 207.9 yards per game and is completing 55.8 percent of his throws.

Of even greater concern to Tennessee, however, is Nickson's abilities as a runner. He has rushed for 650 yards and an impressive 4.9 yards-per-carry average this fall. That makes him a major headache for the Vols, who have struggled mightily against mobile quarterbacks in recent years.

Tennessee linebacker Jerod Mayo says guys like Nickson make rushing the passer a risky proposition.

"It causes problems with our rushing lanes," he said. "When you have a mobile quarterback you have to keep the pocket and the lanes collapsed all the time. Sometimes one person gets out of his lane, it (the field) opens up and the quarterback will take off."

Phillip Fulmer touched on the same theme.

"It's a challenge because you want to be aggressive and get after him," the Vols' head man said. "If you're playing man-to-man and get everybody run off – you're trying to blitz and you don't get to him – when he slips through one of those cracks there's a pretty long distance to run before anybody can show up."

Nickson's value to Vandy goes way beyond his ability to scramble on broken-down pass attempts. He's an integral part of the Commodore ground game. That's why he ranks third among all SEC players in total offense at 239.8 yards per game.

Fulmer noted that Nickson is a "real operator" and that the Vols must "have guys looking for him on the quarterback draw, the option and the quarterback counter. We've got to have somebody in every gap and doing their job.

"Plus, he's a good passer. If you don't try to rush him, he'll sit back there and toss it around. He creates a lot of problems for everybody he's played."

Nickson certainly created problems for Kentucky last weekend. He completed 23 of 37 passes for a mind-boggling 446 yards and ran 16 times for another 71 yards. He single-handedly accounted for 527 yards of total offense. That's 19 more yards than UT's single-game record of 508 set by Peyton Manning against Kentucky in 1997.

Given how potent Nickson can be, Vol defenders are hoping to put some hard hits on him early and see if they can shake him up a bit.

"It's real important to hit any quarterback early, rattle him and try to get him out of his game plan," Mayo said. "That's our focus for this week: Get to the quarterback."

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