Difference Makers, Culture Changers

After the last chance for an SEC home win came and went on Saturday against Kentucky, the Vanderbilt football team shouldn't be too hard to size up near the end of 2009. If there's anything this season has taught to the Commodore Nation, it's that difference makers and culture changers need to reside on both sides of the ball.

Myron Lewis – who intercepted a Kentucky pass this weekend in the disheartening 24-13 loss to the bowl-eligible Wildcats – is a difference maker. Eddie Foster – who snared VU's other pick against Kentucky's collection of passers (four in all) – is another. Patrick Benoist is also a difference maker, and we sincerely hope that the standout linebacker will fully heal from the concussion he suffered in this 11-point loss. Benoist's health is the foremost concern this week in the Commodore camp; if there's any doubt about his playing status heading into the season finale against Tennessee, Benoist must sit… even against the Children of the Checkerboard.

The point doesn't need belaboring: On defense, Vanderbilt football owns the playmakers who can deliver haymakers, hounding other offenses into bunches of mistakes. It's on the offense where the Dores simply need a massive infusion of talent.

Warren Norman's kick-return game put some oompf in Vandy's special teams profile this season, but outside of that source of scoring punch (it sometimes eclipsed what the VU offense did in single games), the Dores have been shut… and shut down. There's no D.J. Moore to create something special on the edges, no Earl Bennett to throw the ball to. This season has also shown that for all his inconsistencies and head-scratching moments, the now-graduated Chris Nickson – in his better moments on the gridiron – really did provide a modest but meaningful amount of production for the Commodores. The mixture of running and passing, the blend of different skills that didn't always emerge but appeared often enough to lead a VU crew to victory, allowed Nickson to become the leading signal caller during last year's winning season, which now seems ever more distant.

As VU prepares for the hated Vols, and the Dores gear up for the game that matters more to their fan base than any other, it's worth noting what Vandy will need in Knoxville: In a word, playmaking.

No coaching staff looks good when an offense sputters and stutters the way this offense has all season long, with the exception of the first half against Georgia Tech. Bobby Johnson and Ted Cain have asked many questions since Labor Day weekend, but they sure haven't found any answers. This loss to Kentucky only confirmed as much, as VU registered a meager 31 yards in the second half. Yeah, it's been that bad. No sense trying to sugar-coat it or hide from it.

Yet, as much as this staff has flailed and – undeniably – failed in its attempt to put points on the board, it has to be said, with just as much authority if not more, that the main deficit on this roster is talent. The brand of athlete on a ballclub has a way of minimizing coaching defects, and of allowing simpler styles to produce desired results. With a Chris Nickson, any of the deficiencies Commodore Nation sees in Ted Cain (and they do exist; the question is of course, "To what degree?") aren't magnified the way they've been with Larry Smith for most of this season. With a D.J. Moore, Mackenzi Adams had a more reliable target, and could post numbers better than the 127 yards, under-50 completion percentage, and one interception he registered against Kentucky.

Effort level and pad level haven't been the enduring problems for this team in 2009. It's offensive talent level – manifested particularly in the pronounced paucity of pitch-and-catch potency – which has sunk the Commodore ship. Bruce Fowler's defense will need to pluck pick-sixes against Jonathan Crompton this Saturday in Neyland Stadium, and make Lane Kiffin's attack revert to September form, if victory is to be reasonably expected. As long as the Vols don't make huge mistakes, however, it's hard to see how Adams will be able to deliver downfield darts to his current crop of receivers against Monte Kiffin's men in orange.

One could say that 2008 is part of an unattainable past, but the goodwill banked in that special season has to continue to pay off for Vandy in the months ahead. With a renewed push on the recruiting trail, the bounty which now exists for Vanderbilt's defense can be at least partially replicated on offense. Once a new assemblage of difference makers enters the fold in Nashville, you'll see a team that's closer to 2008, not 2009.

In the meantime, a defense that has sold out and never stopped striving this season will be forced to spill its guts on Neyland Stadium soil. That's where Commodore football stands, one game away from the finish line. That's where the culture changers and momentum shapers will have to emerge if the Children of the Checkerboard are to be spanked into submission.

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