Last spring, for example, the Commodores entered the spring with only 63 scholarship players available for practice, with only five or six seniors competing with a host of freshmen and sophomores. The year before that was almost a wash, as Johnson and his rookie coaching staff was trying to identify a new quarterback, running back, fullback, defensive line, etc.
This year, with 21 of 22 starters returning, and with 68 scholarship players on hand, there should be much more continuity and far fewer positions up for grabs. There is good depth and experience at almost every position (when was the last time Vanderbilt could say that?). The team knows the system and the drills, and veteran quarterback Jay Cutler will be preparing for his third season as a starter. It appears the program is finally reaching critical mass.
The only down side for fans is that with so many established starters returning, this could be one of the least interesting spring practices in recent memory. As always, however, there are a few position battles which should bear watching. Here are six:
Center: Center was an open position last spring, and should be again for the most part. Last year Steven Brent (6-3, 278) started the first few games at center, and true freshman Tom Sorensen (6-4, 300) took over midway through the season. Sorensen will be availble for spring practice this year, but plans to leave school for a two-year Mormon mission at the end of the semester (after which he will have three full years of eligibility).
The coaches have reportedly made it known that this is a spot where a backup might get an opportunity for some immediate playing time, and that the five starting offensive line spots will go to the five linemen who, regardless of position, demonstrate the most ability. With Jordan Pettit the only loss to graduation, Robbie Caldwell should have at least 12 linemen to fill the five spots-- which is almost unheard-of depth for Vanderbilt.
The center position could go to a veteran like junior Mac Pyle (6-4, 312) or sophomore Adam Dossett (6-4, 282); or it could go to a promising newcomer like Merritt Kirchoffer (who's up to about 320 pounds) or Chris Williams (right, who's 6-6 and up to about 280). Signee Hamilton Holliday of Marietta, Ga. could also get a look when he arrives in the fall.
Tight end: Nick Getter is technically the lone starter not returning from last year's squad (besides Sorensen), but Getter didn't even start every game in 2003. Curtis Brancheau, a dependable backup at tight end, also elected to forgo his last year of eligibility, however, creating a need for more tight ends.
With offensive coordinator Ted Cain fond of occasional two-tight-end sets, Vanderbilt really needs at least four tight ends, and right now there are only three. The most experienced is junior Dustin Dunning (6-5, 240), who came on strong at the end of last season before missing the Tennessee game with an injury. Jonathan Loyte (6-6, 252) may have the best physical tools, but didn't get the experience in his first season to demonstrate himself worthy of winning the position, so this spring should be a key one for him.
The job is now redshirt freshman Kyle Keown's to win, but coaches were openly disappointed last season with Keown's consistency in practice. Keown is the only punter on the roster, and simply must step up. If he fails to find the consistency, the job could go to a walk-on.
Long snapper: Only a few hard-core fans could tell you the name of the player who did the long snapping for the Commodores the last two seasons: walk-on Jason Daniels. Long snapper is an oft-overlooked position on any football team-- at least until he snaps the ball over the punter's head-- or until you don't have one. (By the way, accurate long snappers are in high demand by the NFL, and Daniels might be the most attractive ex-Commodore in this year's draft.)
The two most likely candidates to replace Daniels are Jonathan Loyte and junior linebacker Paul Meadows. But the coaches may elect to open this position up to auditions and issue an all-call.
Kicker: Walk-on Tolga Ertugrul and scholarship player Patrick Johnson battled against injuries and each other for the placekicking spot last season. Neither ever really demonstrated the distance in their kicks to make Vanderbilt a threat to score from outside the opponents' 25-yard-line. As a result, this position will be under severe scrutiny for the third spring in a row.
Ertugrul has not been participating in team workouts, and may not be back with the team. Besides Patrick Johnson, walk-on Nathan True-Daniels will get another look this spring. Signee Daniel Lee arrives in the fall. Coaches hope that one of these three will establish himself at the position sometime between now and the 2004 opener against South Carolina.
Defensive tackle: Vanderbilt went four- and five-deep at the two defensive tackle spots last year, and lost no defensive linemen to graduation. So why is this a spot to keep an eye on? Because despite the depth, no one really performed at the level of a true SEC-caliber run-stopping defensive tackle. This is a position where the play simply must improve if Vanderbilt's defense is to take a step forward.
Ralph McKenzie (6-4, 310), Trey Holloway (6-2, 293), Aaron Carter (6-3, 278) and Matt Clay (6-1, 302) were the four who played the most last season, as well as Robert Dinwiddie (6-5, 280), who went back and forth between end and tackle. Carter is expected to move over to end for 2004. The key newcomer here is Ray Brown (6-3, 296), who spent last year on the scout team as an academic casualty. Brown looks to have his academics in order and should help the line a lot.
Here are some more players to watch this spring:
Kevin Joyce (sophomore LB, 6-3, 212): Saw good playing time last year, and established himself as a hard hitter in a backup role. The coaches love his aggressivness. Will play at about 215.
Greg Jacobs, (pictured at left, 6-3, 274, redshirt freshman DE): The Fork Union Military Academy graduate with a nasty attitude redshirted last year and should help make up for the loss of Antoine Morgan at defensive end.
Jonathan Goff (6-4, 230) and Curtis Gatewood (6-4, 220), redshirt freshman linebackers: These two redshirt freshmen shined on the scout team last year and have the athletic ability to be great ones in time.
George Smith (6-3, 195, redshirt freshman WR): With a plethora of veteran receivers last year, coaches decided to redshirt Smith and play the other true freshman, Marlon White. But both are reportedly of similar size and play-making ability, and White was good enough to beat out some veterans last season as a true freshman.
Darnell Martemus (5-11, 211, redshirt freshman SS): Strong safety is a position where a strong performance by someone in spring practice might be enough to give Andrew Pace some competition for a starting spot. Marcus Buggs (5-11, 205) has worlds of potential, but may not be entirely healthy after undergoing knee surgery last fall. Keep an eye on Martemus, a fast and physical DB who should play at about 212. The spring could also be make-or-break for backup safeties Ben Koger and Ronnie Swoopes.
Final note: Third-string quarterback Lance Parker left school at the semester break, leaving the team with only two quarterbacks for the spring, Jay Cutler (6-4, 222) and Steven Bright (6-4, 230). Both are healthy, and the coaches are highly confident in both of them-- but if either should become injured or incapacitated, it would create a scary depth issue, as there are no other true quarterbacks on the roster. Signee Chris Nickson won't arrive until fall.