Spring fever: Vandy

Every half-century or so the Vanderbilt Commodores find themselves forced to deal with an unusual problem ... overconfidence.

Coming off a 7-6 season and their first bowl victory in 53 years, the 'Dores must be feeling somewhat cocky these days. With nine offensive starters and nine defensive starters back from a team that won four SEC games last fall – most since 1982 – Vandy conceivably could post a second consecutive bowl win this year. (Hey, Kentucky's won three bowl games in a row, so anything's possible.)

Thus, the question becomes: Can the Commodores cope with success? The answer, of course, is an emphatic maybe.

Vandy certainly has a capable coach. Bobby Johnson is entering his eighth season at the helm, which makes him the longest-suffering ... uh, longest-serving Commodore coach since Art Guepe strung together a 10-year run between 1953 and '62.

Like just about everyone else in the SEC, however, Vanderbilt is trying to decide who'll be playing quarterback this fall. Senior Mackenzi Adams started six games last season but is being challenged by junior Jared Funk and sophomore Larry Smith, who started the Commodores' 16-14 Music City Bowl defeat of Boston College. Adams completed 4 of 9 passes for 39 yards with a touchdown and interception in the spring game. Funk was 6 of 9 for 111 yards and a TD, Smith 9 of 14 for 117 yards and 2 TDs.

Whoever plays quarterback will operate behind an offensive line that returns all five 2008 starters. The Dores are not nearly so blessed at wide receiver, however. Two of last fall's top wideouts, George Smith and Sean Walker, are out of eligibility. A third, Jamie Graham, has switched to the secondary. A fourth, Justin Wheeler, suffered a knee injury a week into spring practice that clouds his availability for fall. On a positive note: Senior Alex Washington, back from 2008 knee surgery, caught a 75-yard touchdown pass in the spring game.

Vandy must replace just two starters on defense but those two left gaping holes in the Commodore secondary – cornerback D.J. Moore and safety Reshard Langford.

Also gone is Vanderbilt's all-time scoring leader, kicker Bryant Hahnfeldt. Bidding to replace him is punter Brett Upson, the Most Valuable Player of the Music City Bowl. Where else but Vandy could the punter be your MVP?

Vandy's head coach, a dead ringer for comedian Steve Martin, inadvertently sounded like a comic following the annual Black & Gold Game, which attracted an estimated 1,000 fans.

Speaking of the team's younger players, Johnson noted that it was "good to see them in front of a little crowd and have to execute under pressure."

If the young 'Dores think playing before 1,000 of their own fans is pressure, wait till they experience their first SEC road game.

Bottom line: Vanderbilt won't catch SEC foes napping in 2009, as it did in 2008. Still, Johnson is resourceful enough that another 6-6 regular season is quite possible.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the first in a series of articles analyzing SEC team's post-spring outlooks.


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