Vanderbilt preview

Bobby Johnson just might field his best Vanderbilt football team to date in 2007. There's no high-profile superstar of the Jay Cutler ilk but the Commodores are solid and experienced at virtually every position.

Chris Nickson returns at quarterback after starting as a freshman in 2006. He threw for 2,085 yards and 15 touchdowns last fall AND led the 'Dores in rushing with 694 yards and nine more TDs. He's no Cutler but he's an ideal fit for Vandy's game-shortening, ball-controlling offense.

Nickson won't have to be the primary rusher this fall, since Jeff Jennings has rejoined the team after missing all of 2006 with a major knee injury. Cassen Jackson-Garrison, who bounced back from an emergency appendectomy to rush for 614 yards last fall, combines with Jennings to give the Commodores a solid tailback tandem.

When Vanderbilt puts the ball in the air, most of the time it will be headed in the direction of Earl Bennett. Despite being Vandy's only real receiving threat, he caught 92 passes for 1,146 yards and six touchdowns last fall. If a complementary receiver can be located to take some pressure off of Bennett he could have a monster year in 2007.

The availability of Brian Stamper, an All-SEC pick in 2005 who missed most of '06 with back problems, means Vanderbilt will have five returning starters – all seniors – in its offensive line. Obviously, that's a huge advantage.

As usual, the Commodores' biggest challenge will arrive on the other side of the football, particularly across the defensive front. Senior captain Theo Horrocks should be one of the SEC's better tackles if he gets some help. Otherwise, he'll be double-teamed on every play.

If the front four can hold its ground, Vandy's linebacker corps should be very productive in 2007. Jonathan Goff, recently voted a team captain for the second year in a row, is one of the SEC's better middle linebackers. Fellow senior Marcus Buggs is solid, and sophomore Brandon Bryant was the breakthrough player of spring practice.

Given how susceptible Nickson is to injury as a running quarterback, the presence of backup Richard Kovalcheck is a real plus. The Arizona transfer – recruited by Tennessee coming out of high school – completed 7 of 9 passes for 103 yards and three touchdowns in the spring game.

Bottom line: If Vanderbilt's defense is even half-decent, the Commodores' offense should give them a chance to hang with everyone on their schedule.


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