Fall practice begins; seven burning questions

Fall football practice gets underway Wednesday at 6:15 p.m. at the John Rich Practice Complex. Here are seven burning questions that Vanderbilt head coach Bobby Johnson hopes to have answered by Aug. 30, when the Commodores open the season vs. Ole Miss.

1. Can any school field a winning team in the SEC without seniors?

OK, the Commodores do have some seniors, but besides tight end Nick Getter, very few of them will see much playing time. The team has so few seniors that the captain's roles, traditionally reserved for seniors, went to a junior (Justin Geisinger) and two sophomores (Jay Cutler, Jovan Haye).

But don't reach for the smelling salts just yet. A closer look at the roster reveals that the Commodores are replete with experienced fourth-year juniors and third-year sophomores, many of whom will start. A prime example is Cutler, firmly entrenched as the starting quarterback as a third-year sophomore. The youthful-looking signal-caller has already been through the SEC wars once. Plus, he's increased his weight to almost 225 pounds since last season, and his bench press to. He's no longer a child.

Bobby Johnson says: "We have an extremely young team, but a lot of these guys played last year and took their lumps. Hopefully it paid off for them."

2. Can the youthful Vanderbilt secondary be ready in time to face a Heisman-caliber quarterback like Ole Miss's Eli Manning?

Bobby Johnson won't say so, but he has to be lying awake at night worrying about this one. Gone from the secondary are veterans Rushen Jones, Justin Giboney, Jonathan Shaub, Aaron McWhorter and Mike Martin.

The gifted Dominique Morris should hold down one corner, while newcomer Bill Alford-- a (gasp) junior college transfer, and one of the fastest players on the team-- could get the nod over Cheron Thompson at the other. Sophomore Andrew Pace should step in for Shaub at strong safety, and Kelechi Ohanaja should do the same for Giboney at free safety. Lorenzo Parker and Nick Lyle can help if needed. There's some talent and speed there, but how quickly can it jell?

Bobby Johnson says: "There's not a lot of experience, but those guys worked hard in the spring and got better. Last year we gave up too many big plays, and sometimes we were trying to help our guys by giving them multiple defenses, multiple coverages, etc. and we probably confused them more than we helped them. I think we're a little more reliable on defense right now."

3. Now that Dan Stricker and M. J. Garrett have graduated, who will catch Cutler's passes?

Bobby Johnson says: "We think we're going to be a little more athletic at receiver. Brandon Smith proved last year, if you saw him play, that he can make some spectacular, acrobatic catches. Erik Davis from Nashville, who played last year as a freshman, is going to be a good player for us.

"Chris Young was suspended last year, but did everything we asked him to do, academically, socially and athletically. He went above and beyond the call of duty. He's earned his way back on the team, and I think he's going to contribute a great deal.

"We have some young freshmen coming in, some tall guys, George Smith and Marlon White. And one other guy, Jason Caldwell, as a redshirt freshman, was getting off to a good start in the spring when he broke his wrist. I think he can help us too."

Jay Cutler adds: "Last year we were kind of confined. They really wouldn't let us do a whole lot. Everything came through the sidelines. This year we ought to open it up a little more and take a few shots down the field and stretch the defense."

4. Can the kicking game possibly be as good as last year after the departure of punter/kicker Greg Johnson?

Losing the versatile Johnson to a transfer was the Commodores' cruelest offseason blow. A true freshman last season, Johnson surprised everyone by averaging 43.8 yards per punt, and hit 8-of-13 field goals.

It's safe to say redshirt freshman placekicker Patrick Johnson isn't the long-distance threat that Greg Johnson was, but the Athens, Ala. native was incredibly accurate in high school. At least three walk-ons may provide him with competition for kickoff duties. The punting job will go to newcomer Kyle Keown of Jesup, Ga., who was signed quickly after Greg Johnson revealed his intentions last March.

Bobby Johnson says: "We were in this position last year. We had no one coming back who had ever kicked or punted in a game, and Greg came in there. We're hoping the same thing is going to happen this year."

5. Who will start at defensive end opposite Jovan Haye?

Haye will hold down one side of the defensive line, and the Commodores for once have some experience and depth at tackle. But who will fill in for the graduated Chuck Losey at the other end? (It won't be Antoine Morgan, who is academically ineligible.)

Sophomore Chris Booker (6-4, 245) and junior Robert Dinwiddie (6-5, 280) are the most likely candidates, but both have battled with injuries since the day they set foot on campus. Fifth-year senior Libnir Telusca (6-3, 246) could finally get an opportunity-- or the opportunity could go to a younger player.

Bobby Johnson says: "Hopefully Robert Dinwiddie is going to be ready to go. Richard Freeman (6-5, 240 redshirt freshman) is going to have to step in there. Greg Jacobs (6-3, 255) is a true freshman who might have to come in here and play."

6. Does offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell have the raw material present to piece together an effective offensive line?

Truthfully, the Commodores probably have some-- but not all-- of the necessary ingredients. Caldwell has four upperclassmen returning in Justin Geisinger, Kenan Arkan, Brian Kovolisky and Jordan Pettit-- the nucleus around which a sound line can be structured. Geisinger (6-4, 328) will be in the mix for All-SEC honors. Arkan (6-7, 300) and Kovolisky (6-7, 282) have added weight in the offseason and increased their strength. More good news-- all four are juniors and should be back next year.

But Pettit (6-3, 288), a rare fifth-year junior, has a total of two career starts, and still has some health issues after a leg break in last year's opener. If he's unable to start at center, redshirt freshman Steven Brent (6-3, 278) will do the snapping. Sophomore Mac Pyle (6-4, 308) started six games at guard last year. After that, inexperience begins to kick in. Sophomore Ryan King (6-7, 305), redshirt freshmen Blake Luker (6-5, 302) and Adam Dossett (6-4, 270), and true freshman Brian Stamper (6-6, 275) are names that could surface before the end of the season.

Bobby Johnson says: "You can't have a good offense without a good offensive line. That will probably be one place where our freshmen may come in and provide depth. I doubt if any freshman will come in and be a starter, but they will provide depth."

7. Which true freshmen are most likely to earn playing time in their first year?

Bobby Johnson says: "Marlon White (6-4, 185) has got a chance to help us at wide receiver-- he's thin right now, but he's getting a little bit stronger. He's been here a lot of the summer. He's got some good speed.

"Jonathan Loyte (6-6, 250 tight end) has been here for a while. Marcus Buggs (5-11, 200 safety), I think has got a good chance to help us. So there are several. We're really pleased with the athleticism of our incoming freshman class.

"Also, I know one who is going to have to help us, and that's Kyle Keown (6-0, 185 punter)."

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