In the Trenches: Vanderbilt O-Line 2014

Vanderbilt football enters the 2014 season under the guidance of its fourth head coach in the last five years and is hoping to continue the most success that the program has experienced in the last 100 years. Coach Derek Mason will lean heavily upon the biggest strength of the program, the offensive line where four of the five starters are returning from the 2013 squad.

The offense will have a new coordinator this fall with Karl Dorrell calling the shots on that side of the ball. Dorrell joins the Black and Gold after spending the last six seasons in the NFL with both the Miami Dolphins and Houston Texans. He has extensive experience as both a head coach and offensive coordinator and will be a very big part of the success of the first year staff.

The 2014 offensive line returns with a very tight knit group of players that combine for a total of 80 starts and have far more playing experience than any other group on this year’s team. While their experience together has been extensive, they will be under the guidance of not only a new head coach, but a new offensive line coach in Kevin Lightner after the departure of Herb Hand to Penn State. Coach Lightner brings a hard-nosed blue collar approach much like his personal playing days while at the University of Nebraska. During the spring it was apparent that the players have taken to his approach and style and look to be in good hands entering this season.

This year’s offensive line will be anchored by Rimington Award Watch-list center Joe Townsend (6’-4”, 312) who enters his senior year with 22 starts during the last two seasons and is probably the most seasoned of the group. Serving as the leader of the offensive line for the last two seasons and leading the point of attack he has helped gel the group into a very cohesive unit. He will continue to be an important part of helping this group gel after the loss of right tackle Wesley Johnson who set the VU all-time start record. Townsend has continued to improve every year and has been an integral part of the improvement of the program over the last few seasons. Backing up Townsend appears to sophomore Barrett Gouger (6’-4”, 300) who has looked good in limited action at center, but saw action in 10 games last year mostly at guard.

On either side of Townsend should be junior guards Jake Bernstein (photo at left) (6’-4”, 306) and Spencer Pulley (6’-4”, 300) both of which have 17 career starts. Bernstein has proven to be a strong run blocker and appears to have a nasty streak that serves him well on the line. Pulley has always shown himself to be the tactician of the position who uses great technique to beat his opponent on a consistent basis. Both will be key in keeping the group solidified entering 2014 as the most touted group on the squad. In addition to the two projected starters depth will be added by sophomores Barrett Gouger and Will Holden (6’-7”, 310) along with red-shirt freshman Delando Crooks (6’-5”, 312) are expected to work into the mix with rotation at guard.

Offensive tackle will be both a position of experience as well as youth this season. With the loss of All-SEC performer Wesley Johnson at left tackle, sophomore Andrew Jelks (6’-6”, 305) is expected to move from the right side over to the left. Jelks impressed everyone last year during his freshman season earning eight starts at right tackle. Jelks will have little problems with the transitions and will be a solid performer in 2014. The right side appears to be set for senior Andrew Bridges (6’6”, 285) to take over for Jelks with sophomores Blake Fromang (6’-7”, 300) and Kevin McCoy (6’-5”, 295) along with red-shirt freshman Sean Dowling (6’-5”, 288) all competing for the spot. In addition to the underclassman competing for the starting nod, senior Ryan Brockway (6’-4”, 285) is expected to add depth at right tackle. It appears to be a close battle for the starting nod at right tackle entering camp.

With the offensive line returning as much experience as any other group on the 2014 squad the added depth from the incoming recruiting class is solid with the additions of freshmen Bailey Grainer (6’-6”, 345), Cole Hardin (6’-4”, 305) and Bruno Reagan (6’-3”, 315) who all possess the size needed to compete in the SEC when called upon.

Despite the loss of Wesley Johnson and departure of Herb Hand, the offensive line will be improved over last season and a key component of the Derek Mason’s game plan for this fall. They have proven to be a very close group that has a great comradery and chemistry that will make this group the foundation for this season.

Veteran guard Spencer Pulley started 13 games last season.

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