Youth movement? Johnson says no, but...

Saturday's biggest story may have been the emergence in the backfield of true freshman Cassen Jackson-Garrison. On a day when yardage on the ground was hard to come by, the 6-1, 208-pounder finished as the team's leading rusher, with a net of 37 yards on five carries.

For the small group of Vanderbilt fans which made the trip to Athens, Ga. Saturday, the day could hardly be called memorable. Relegated to the northwest corner of Sanford Stadium, the Vandy section was scarcely seen and hardly heard from as the Commodores dropped their fifth game of the season, 33-3 to No. 8 Georgia.

On the other hand, however, the few brave souls who made the trip may recall the trip years from now as the genesis of a new era.

The Commodores unveiled a few new wrinkles on offense, scrapping the customary I-formation for a two-back set in which backs often went in motion before the snap. Most interestingly, the offense featured the debut, for all practical purposes, of true freshmen tailbacks Jeff Jennings and Cassen Jackson-Garrison.

Jennings, who had scored his first college touchdown one week earlier in a loss to Rutgers, surprisingly earned the first start of his career vs. Georgia, ahead of customary starters Norval McKenzie and Kwane Doster. Though Jennings, 6-1, 225 pounds, ended with more carries (6) than either of the two veterans, the freshman from Dandridge, Tenn. had a frustrating day vs. Georgia's stout defense. Jennings, the most physical of the Commodores' tailbacks, netted only a single yard and was stopped several times for losses, including once behind the goal line for a safety.

But the day's biggest story may have been the appearance in the backfield of another true freshman, Cassen Jackson-Garrison. On a day when yardage on the ground was hard to come by, the 6-1, 208-pounder finished as the team's leading rusher, with a net of 37 yards on five carries. Never mind that most of his big gains came after the contest was decided; on this day Vandy fans were hard-pressed for positives.

Fans who wondered two weeks ago why the coaches would burn Jackson-Garrison's redshirt so late in the season may have gotten their answer. Jackson-Garrison may be the best raw talent in the Commodores' stable of ball carriers, and Saturday astute fans caught a few quick glimpses.

Is there a sense, reporters asked Bobby Johnson after the game, that freshman backs Jennings and Jackson-Garrison represent the future as far as the backfield goes?

"No, we've still got confidence in all of them," Johnson said, referring to McKenzie and Doster, his veteran backs. "We're not chucking anything in, and we're not going to a youth movement. We're trying to find out the best combinations [are] that we can get, and see if we can get some that can move the football."

Though Johnson and the coaches have recognized Jennings' and Jackson-Garrison's abilities in practice since the earliest weeks of practice, they'd been hesitant to use them in game situations. After the Georgia game was out of hand in the second half, it provided just such an opportunity for a limited tryout for Jackson-Garrison. And the coaches had to like what they saw.

"It helps to get those young guys sometime. You never know when you're going to need 'em. Until we get them some time where we can look at them and evaluate them, it's kind of scary to put them in. In a situation like this, they get some time and prove that they can run what we ask them to run. We'll be more likely to put them in in a game down the road."

Jackson-Garrison said he was kept unaware by his coaches that he would play as much as he did Saturday. He was inserted on the team's second series, and on second down picked up five yards.

"It was a big surprise," he said. "I had no clue.

"When they said 'Cassen!', I was like... 'Whoa,'" he added, raising his eyebrows, and snapping his neck around. "I was like, OK. I just went on out there.

"At first I was really nervous, but after the first little play I was good. I just tried to look at it as a high school game."

A high school game with 92,000 people watching, perhaps.

He was back in on Vandy's second series of the first half, and he picked up a first down on a 13-yard carry. Later he picked up 12 yards up the middle, and on the Commodores' ill-fated possession late in the fourth quarter, he carried the ball down to the Georgia 2, setting up a second-and-goal. (The Dores failed to score, however.)

Johnson refused to speculate on how much the two young freshmen will figure into the team's future plans.

"We evaluate that afterwards," Johnson said. "I'm not going to make any snap decisions right now."


Coincidentally, longtime Vanderbilt fans may recall that blowout losses at Georgia's Sanford Stadium were the initial proving ground for two of the greatest players in Vanderbilt's recent history.

In the second half of a game in Athens in 1986, Watson Brown inserted third-string quarterback Eric Jones and instructed him to run the option and keep the ball on the ground. Jones, an unproven sophomore transfer from Northwestern, was the Commodores' most effective quarterback of the day and soon afterwards claimed the starting job.

Jones went on to become the greatest dual-threat quarterback in Vanderbilt history in his three-year career (1986-88).

In 1998, in the second half of a loss at Georgia, Woody Widenhofer threw redshirt freshman quarterback Greg Zolman into the fray in relief of starter David Wallace. Zolman impressed the coaches with his poise and was awarded the starting nod the following week. Zolman would go on to win seven of the next 12 games he started.

Zolman, of course would finish his career (1998-2001) as the school's all-time passing leader, with 7.981 yards.


Another Vandy freshman, punter Kyle Keown, got his first start Saturday as a replacement for the injured Abtin Iranmanesh. Keown got off five punts for a 34.6-yard average, but downed two inside the Bulldogs' 20-yard line. Most of his punts were made into a stiff wind, and one was partially blocked but still went for 35 yards.

Johnson said Keown was asked to kick the ball away from Georgia's dangerous punt returners.

"We were asking him to kick directionally this week-- trying to kick away from them. That's pretty much to ask from a guy just coming in there. Initially, he did pretty good. I think he's going to be a good punter when it's all said and done."

Vanderbilt hosts Eastern Kentucky Saturday at 1 pm CT.


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