The biggest question mark for Vanderbilt in 2006 is at quarterback. Jay Cutler averaged 280 yards passing a game in 2005 and was drafted by the Denver Broncos in the first round of the NFL draft. He leaves big shoes to be filled.
Sophomore Chris Nickson, a former Alabama Mr. Football, and redshirt freshman Mackenzi Adams are the likely candidates to take over for Cutler. Both are sound passers and runners although Nickson is a more talented runner and Adams the superior passer. In 2005 Nickson saw limited action as a redshirt freshman completing 1 of 3 passes for 13 yards. Neither won the job outright after spring practice, although Nickson is said to have the edge. Another player could emerge as quarterback. After both Nickson and Adams were nagged by injuries throughout the spring, Bobby Johnson took advantage of a new NCAA rule and secured the transfer of Arizona quarterback Richard Kovalcheck. Kovalcheck is a former Scout.com 4-star prospect and is an experienced quarterback with over 1,000 yards passing in the Pac-10. He will be eligible in 2006.
Whoever emerges as quarterback will have the benefit of a talented stable of wide receivers. Earl Bennett caught 79 passes as a freshman in 2005 and earned First Team All-SEC honors. Senior Marlon White snagged 34 passes including two for touchdowns at Tennessee. George Smith is a fourth-year sophomore possession receiver who could play anywhere in the SEC. Bryant Anderson saw action in a reserve role in 2005. Larry Simmons, Sean Walker and Justin Wheeler will provide quality reserve personnel for the receiving corps.
Vanderbilt returns its leading tailback, junior Cassen Jackson-Garrison. Jackson rushed for 539 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2005. Fellow junior Jeff Jennings (448 yards) is equally a fine tailback and actually had more starts than Jackson in 2006. However, Jennings was seriously injured during the Kentucky game and may have to sit out 2006.
Redshirt freshman Jared Hawkins stands ready to fill in as needed. Hawkins is a fearless runner with great strength and quickness.
Senior Steven Bright is firmly entrenched at fullback. Bright, a former quarterback who moved to fullback before the 2005 season, performed well last season and had a great spring. After Bright there is not much experience. Junior Darnell Martemus was moved from linebacker during the spring to provide depth. Jonathan Massey, a highly regarded incoming true freshman could see action.
Sophomore Brad Allen emerged as the top candidate to replace now graduated tight end Dustin Dunning. Allen saw quality action in 2005 but did not register a catch. Two towering redshirt freshmen, Jake Bradford and Thomas Welch, will back him up.
Vanderbilt's offensive line is said to be its best in 20 years. Senior Captain and Outland Trophy candidate Brian Stamper (photo at right), a 3-year starter, returns at tackle to anchor the Commodore line. He earned All-SEC honors in 2005. Fellow tackle Chris Williams was a regular starter in 2005 who could garner all conference recognition in 2006. Junior Elliot Hood and redshirt freshman Eric Hensley provide capable backups to Williams and Stamper. Hamilton "Ham Bone" Holliday has won the starting position at center after the graduation of Trey Hollaway. Holliday saw extensive action at guard in 2005 including in the win over Tennessee in Knoxville. He'll be backed up by redshirt freshmen Bradley Vierling and Ryan Vance.
Junior Josh Eames returns to one guard position after starting all of 2005. Fellow junior Merritt Kirchoffer won the other guard spot during spring drills. He has extensive experience in a reserve role.
Fifth year senior and veteran starter Mac Pyle was injured much of last season. He could return and make a positive impact anywhere on the line. He did not participate in spring drills.
If Vanderbilt is to be improved in 2006 it must reduce the 170 rushing yards and 29 points allowed a game. While the Commodore defense was suspect in 2005 it did come up with big late game stands against Wake Forest, Arkansas and Tennessee that helped secure those victories.
At linebacker, Vanderbilt must replace leading tackler and All-SEC Moses Osemwegie. Senior and veteran starter Kevin Joyce will take over Osemwegie's weak side position. Junior Marcus Buggs, who had 29 tackles in 2005 will join the starting trio of 'backers at the strong side. Jonathan Goff, who was selected as a captain by his teammates in the spring, is believed to be the next great linebacker to come out of Vanderbilt. He will man the middle linebacker spot and had 63 tackles last season. He will man the middle linebacker spot and had 63 tackles last season.
The Vanderbilt defensive linemen welcomed a new coach in the spring. Rick Logo came to Vanderbilt from Troy after David Turner left for Alabama. Expect some changes in the defensive line schemes. Logo will work to stop the incredible attrition this unit has suffered over the past couple of years. Players have left for a variety of reasons including graduation, disciplinary problems, personal reasons, and transfers. The most recent loss was defensive end David Carter who in June announced he was transferring. Carter was an experienced veteran who had seen quality action. Despite the losses, there is still some talent on this unit. Senior Chris Booker is a returning starter at defensive end. Booker had 30 tackles last season. Junior Curtis Gatewood is a converted linebacker who could win the other end spot. Broderick Stewart, Steven Stone and David Whitington will provide depth at the position. Junior Theo Horrocks was a regular starter at defensive tackle in 2005 and had 5 tackles at Tennessee.
Look for senior Ray Brown to man the other tackle spot. In 2005 he started against LSU, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida. Junior Gabe Hall or sophomore Brandon Holmes could also claim his position. Redshirt freshman Derrius Dowell will see action in a reserve role. True freshman Greg Billinger, a Scout.com 3-star prospect who decommitted from Georgia to come to Vanderbilt, might make an impact on the defensive line.
At the cornerback position Vanderbilt must replace now graduated Andrew Pace. Jared Fagan, who intercepted a Tennessee pass on the final play of the season, is the likely new starter. Senior Sean Dixon could earn this starting position in preseason practice. Sophomore Josh Allen returns at the other corner position. Allen broke up 5 passes in 2005 and had 42 tackles. Redshirt freshmen Darlron Spead and Joel Caldwell will provide depth at this position.
Sophomore Reshard Langford returns at starting strong safety. Langford earned All-SEC Freshman honors in 2005 after finishing with 54 tackles, 3 interceptions and 4 defensed passes. Funtaine Hunter will back him up. Bobby Johnson is high on redshirt freshman Ryan Hamilton who emerged from spring drills as the starting free safety. Hamilton, like Langford, is a hard hitter with a nose for the football. Senior Ben Koger is experienced and may win back the starting position in August.
Special teams have been a sore spot for Bobby Johnson since his arrival at Vanderbilt. While place kicking accuracy and punting distance improved in 2005 there are still major issues to be fixed on the Vanderbilt special teams. A blocked field goal against Middle Tennessee likely cost Vanderbilt its first bowl bid since 1982. Coach Johnson turned control of the special teams over to linebackers coach Warren Belin prior to spring practice. Belin will work to improve all aspects of the Vanderbilt's special units. Sophomore kicker/punter Bryant Hahnfeldt, the shining star on this unit, might not be ready to play in 2006 after suffering a serious knee injury while making a tackle against Tennessee in 2005. If that is the case, look for junior Kyle Keown to fill in as punter. Keown averaged 35 yards per punt in 2005. Senior Patrick Johnson is a capable kicker but had a late season slump in 2004 that may have cost Vandy a couple of wins. Bill Robertson will handle kickoffs if Hahnfeld isn't ready. Quarterback Chris Nickson will serve as holder. True freshman Brett Upson, a highly regarded kicking and punting prospect, could also see action in Hahnfeldt's absence or could take over one of the responsibilities if Hahnfeldt returns.
Sophomore superstar Earl Bennett will likely return kicks and punts.
Vanderbilt's schedule is tougher than the 2005 version. The Commodores, who were previously scheduled to host Middle Tennessee in the opener, will now open at Michigan in a nationally televised ESPN game. Middle drops off the schedule. Vandy will follow that game with a visit to Tuscaloosa to face Alabama. A visit to Georgia and home games with Arkansas, South Carolina and Florida are all very tough cards. SEC games against Ole Miss, Tennessee and Kentucky will be difficult but are winnable. A non-conference visit to Duke is also winnable. Temple and Tennessee State should be easy wins.
Reshard Langford breaks up a pass against Georgia. Langford had 3 interceptions in 2005. (VM/Stan Jones)