Vanderbilt (2-5, 1-3 SEC) meets LSU (5-2, 2-2) Saturday at 7 p.m. at Baton Rouge (ESPN GamePlan; 104.5 The Zone.)"> Vanderbilt (2-5, 1-3 SEC) meets LSU (5-2, 2-2) Saturday at 7 p.m. at Baton Rouge (ESPN GamePlan; 104.5 The Zone.)">

Brian Kovolisky: Last man standing

Injuries and defections have riddled Vanderbilt's offensive line this season, but the one constant through it all has been senior guard Brian Kovolisky. Over his five-year career, "Kovo" has been moved around more than a mob informant in the witness protection program. <P> <i>Vanderbilt (2-5, 1-3 SEC) meets LSU (5-2, 2-2) Saturday at 7 p.m. at Baton Rouge (ESPN GamePlan; 104.5 The Zone.)

NASHVILLE-- Just 18 short months ago, in the spring of 2003, it appeared as though Vanderbilt football was as well-stocked at offensive line as it had been in years. In Brian Kovolisky, Justin Geisinger, Kenan Arkan and Jordan Pettit, the Commodores had what appeared to be the nucleus of a formidable veteran group to anchor Robbie Caldwell's O-line corps for the next two seasons.

How long ago that all seems today. Pettit, slow to recover from knee surgery, would never play another down for Vanderbilt. Arkan would be lost for much of 2003 and 2004 with ankle sprains, and even the durable Geisinger has missed games this season with a knee sprain.

The last man standing is senior left tackle Brian Kovolisky. In the Navy and Mississippi State games earlier this season, the 6-7, 295-pound senior scanned the Vanderbilt offensive line, only to realize he was the only veteran still playing.

"I'm just trying to stay healthy," says the fifth-year senior. "I had one season [2002] when I was unlucky with injuries. But the last two years, knock on wood, I've been able to stay healthy. Even Geis went down for a few games after that Ole Miss game."

Vanderbilt's coaches have been under some criticism for the team's 2-5 start, and perhaps rightly so. But perhaps the most overlooked reason for the Commodores' failure to live up to high preseason expectations is an almost uncanny rash of injuries and defections that has riddled Vandy's offensive line corps.

Between the opening of 2004 spring practice and the South Carolina opener, the Commodores lost a total of four centers to injuries and grades. Arkan, a veteran tackle expected to return after missing much of 2003 with an ankle sprain, tweaked his other ankle early this year in fall camp and hasn't played. Starting junior right guard Mac Pyle abruptly decided to leave the team in midseason due to an unspecified personal problem. Capable backup Merritt Kirchoffer has been held out with injuries.

The one constant through it all has been "Kovo". The soft-spoken senior from Clark, N.J. will start his 31st game as a Commodore Saturday night at Death Valley. Over his five years, he's been moved around more than a mob informant in the witness protection program.

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The first thing you should know about Kovolisky is that he's not much of a talker. A leader by example, definitely. But linemen generally carry out their duties in anonymity, and most of the time that's just fine by Kovo.

Kovolisky, who played both ways in high school, was recruited by the Woody Widenhofer staff as a defensive end. He reported to fall camp in the summer of 2000 thinking he'd spend his Vanderbilt career as a defensive lineman.

"I was redshirted my first year here, and I spent most of that year on the scout team," he remembers. "I stayed at defensive end at spring ball."

In 2001, a shortage of offensive linemen would cause the coaches to ask Kovo to make a position change.

"That summer Bill Laveroni, Woody's offensive line coach, convinced Woody to switch me. So that summer he switched me to O-line. I played second-team guard behind Duncan Cave."

He would wait his turn patiently for playing time, and it would come unexpectedly midway through the season. In a road game vs. South Carolina, Cave, a sturdy veteran, went down with a career-ending injury.

"It was scary, first to look up and see Duncan lying there, and then to see 88,000 people screaming at you," he recalls. "Going out there that night I was really nervous, but after the first two plays I settled down. I was still a little shaken up though, because until you go out there, you don't know what it's like."

Kovolisky would end up finishing out the season with five straight starts. His first career start was a memorable win, 42-38 over Duke.

Widenhofer would resign at the end of his redshirt freshman season. Enter Bobby Johnson and new offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell, who had designs on making Kovolisky the starting right tackle, opposite Geisinger on the left.

But once again the best-laid plans were foiled by a cruel injury. Guard Jordan Pettit suffered what proved to be a career-ending knee injury in the opener vs. Georgia Tech. Searching for a quick solution, the coaches reluctantly asked Kovo to move back to guard, which he was happy to do.

But Kovolisky's sophomore season, 2002, would marred by injury. A hamstring injury suffered in the win over Connecticut kept him out of the season's last four games.

Another position switch was due for No. 76 the following year. In the spring he was asked to move to left guard, next to Geisinger, to replace the graduated Jim May. At long last, he seemed to find a position where he would stick.

Even as one of Vandy's better linemen, Kovolisky has been overshadowed for four years by the better-known Geisinger, the NFL-bound weight room monster. But Kovo's obscure labors finally drew recognition in the Mississippi State game; in a 31-13 win, he was named SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week. Provided he stays healthy, he has a shot at some All-SEC honors after the season.

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Saturday vs. LSU should mark Kovolisky's 20th consecutive start at left guard. His presence next to Geisinger gives Vandy a powerful, solid left side of the offensive front for the backs to run behind.

With his senior year rapidly coming to a close (he will graduate soon with a degree in Sociology), Kovolisky says the one thing he cherishes most is the relationships with his teammates.

"For me, it's playing with all these guys, some of whom have been here for five years," he says. "I miss some of the old guys, but some of these young guys have gotten a chance this year to show what they can do."

The Commodores (2-5, 1-3 SEC) are heavy underdogs once again this week in a 7 p.m. road game vs. LSU (5-2, 2-2). But Kovolisky and the other seniors have prided themselves all year on modeling the proper mindset for the young players. LSU, the defending national champion, has demonstrated its vulnerabilities in three close wins that could easily have been losses, the players pointed out last week.

But is Vanderbilt capable of turning in its best performance in such a hostile environment?

"You just have to go out there and step your game up," Kovolisky said. "If you come in at halftime surprised that you're still in the game, it's not going to help you. You just have to get mentally focused and realize that you can play with any team you go up against."

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Photos by Brent Wiseman and Bryan Hufalar, copyright 2004 for VandyMania.com.


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