Five points of emphasis for fall
1. Identifying a starting center. The good news is that center is probably the only position where the Commodores have major concerns. The bad news? Center is a truly critical position in the offense, and the concern there is truly major. The staff knew it would have to replace Tom Sorensen in the spring, but after Adam Dossett hurt a knee and Chris Williams and Steven Brent were lost to academic concerns, the staff was forced back to square one.
Fortunately, the staff had experimented in the spring with moving D-lineman Trey Holloway to offense. The other likely candidate is Hamilton Holliday (6-4, 292), a gifted true freshman. Neither has played the position in college, and this looks to be the only wobbly wheel on an otherwise veteran and experienced offense.
It'll be a good sign if: Either Holliday or Holloway establishes himself firmly as a starter before Sept. 4, and the team gets through that game without any exchange problems.
2. Getting tougher up front on defense. Last year the Commodore defense surrendered 380 yards per game, better than the 405 yards per game the year before. Bruce Fowler's corps will need to make similar strides this season to make the team competitive, and it all starts with being able to stuff the run.
Vanderbilt addressed its needs along the defensive line in a big way by signing seven defensive linemen, as many as three or four of whom could play this season. The freshmen will provide depth to a unit that's already deep and experienced, but that seemed to wear out at times last year.
It's a good sign if: Robert Dinwiddie is allowed to stay inside and play tackle rather than end.
3. Identifying a placekicker. Vanderbilt made only a measly six field goals last year, with a long of 38. "It was demoralizing sometimes when you have a chance to score... you don't feel like you can kick the field goal, and you're going for it on fourth-and-6, fourth-and-5 when you get down in the red zone," said Johnson. "And those things are hard to make."
Sophomore Patrick Johnson is the incumbent, and he and Nathan True-Daniels should compete with true freshman Daniel Lee for the job. All three jobs-- field goals, extra points and kickoffs-- are up for grabs. May the best man win.
It's a good sign if: A Vanderbilt kicker connects on a field goal of 40 yards or more vs. South Carolina... which the Commodores went all year last year without doing. (Remember, the Gamecocks are also looking for a new placekicker, and last year they converted only 8-of-15 field goals themselves.)
4. Identifying a punter and a long snapper. Last year these two jobs went to a pair of senior walk-ons, Abtin Iranmanesh and Jason Daniels. Both have graduated (though unconfirmed rumors have circulated of Iranmanesh's return to the team for a grad school year).
The punting job may be Kyle Keown's to lose anyway. Keown, the team's only scholarship punter, redshirted last year and could claim the position for the next four years with an impressive fall camp. Walk-on Bill Robertson is still around too. Jonathan Loyte is the favorite over Paul Meadows to replace Daniels at snapper.
It's a good sign if: Keown has improved his consistency enough to win the job.
5. Improving the offense in red-zone and third-and-short situations. Vanderbilt was last in the conference in red-zone efficiency in 2003. Part of that had to do with the kicking game, but the offense struggled often to convert on third-and-short situations, as well as fourth-and-short situations in the red zone.
Offensive coordinator Ted Cain possesses two excellent blocking fullbacks in Matthew Tant (5-11, 235) and Clark Lea (6-0, 237, returning for a third year). Jonathan Loyte and Dustin Dunning should be the double tight ends in the power formation. Can Cassen Jackson-Garrison become the bruising back the Commodores have lacked? Will the team's gains in strength in the off-season pay off in conversions on third-and-short, which are so often crucial late in the game?
It's a good sign if: The Commodores can use the power offense to convert against the Gamecock defense, which physically manhandled Vanderbilt last year.
11 newcomers to watch:
2. Ray Brown, defensive tackle: Started at tackle in the spring game, and could be a starter on the defensive line after it's all said and done. The New Jersey native with great off-the-ball quickness is finally ready to see the field after two years on the scout team.
3. Greg Jacobs, defensive end: Missing part of the spring was a setback, but it'll be difficult to keep this redshirt freshman off the field if he stays healthy. At 6-3, 275, he's a bit undersized, but he's got a nasty streak that the coaches love, and his motor never stops. "We call him little Pollack," says Jovan Haye, in homage to Georgia's All-SEC end.
4. Jonathan Loyte, tight end: Took one for the team last year when he moved to defensive end to bolster a depleted line, then saw little playing time the first part of the year. The most physically imposing of all the tight ends, Loyte hould fulfill his considerable promise in 2004 and wind up no worse than the second tight end in an offense that frequently uses double-tights.
8. Jared Fagan, cornerback: The speed merchant from Maryland could become a wild card on special teams, where he should get a look as a breakaway kick returner.
9., 10., and 11. Hamilton Holliday, Daniel Lee, and Kyle Keown: See above.
Photos (except top photo) by Brent Wiseman, copyright 2004 for VandyMania.com.