Vanderbilt Football: Inside Slant

"It's an honor...being mentioned with Herschel Walker. That's pretty cool." -- RB Warren Norman. Points of emphasis for next year will certainly include beefing up the offensive line, not just in depth, but in firming up a starting five.

INSIDE SLANT

It ended like most Vanderbilt seasons -- with a loss in the final game. But it was more disappointing than many of the two-win seasons this program has cranked out in the last 25 years.

A 31-16 defeat at Tennessee finished Vanderbilt's campaign at 2-10 overall and 0-8 in the Southeastern Conference, a major letdown after last year's bowl season.

"This definitely leaves a bad taste in my mouth," linebacker Chris Marve said. "This is definitely motivation and fuel for this offseason to train hard and not be complacent."

Following a seven-win season and a victory in the Music City Bowl, the Commodores had their heart set on a second straight bowl trip. With all five starters back on the offensive line and most of their defense back, it seemed realistic.

But Vandy's offense went from opportunistic to poor, failing to take advantage of the defense's ability to force turnovers. The defense wore down as the season progressed and ended as the SEC's worst against the run.

And an insane wave of injuries didn't help. Playing 12 straight weeks without a bye was a scheduling mistake that led to a lack of depth being exposed almost from the get-go.

Right tackle James Williams and free safety Ryan Hamilton went down in a Sept. 12 loss at LSU. More injuries followed until the offense was missing seven opening night starters by the season finale.

The Commodores scored just 71 points in eight SEC games, with the 16 points at UT being their season high. They just didn't have enough playmakers or depth to consistently score against SEC defenses.

Points of emphasis for next year will certainly include beefing up the offensive line, not just in depth, but in firming up a starting five. Reliable center Bradley Vierling won't be easy to replace.

The team must also find more speed on both sides of the ball, although running back Warren Norman's emergence gives the offense hope for the future. The continued development of quarterback Larry Smith will be critical as well.

Replacing cornerback Myron Lewis and defensive end Broderick Stewart will be important. Vandy must also find a new punter to take the place of Brett Upson, who had an All-SEC type of year.

The coaching staff should remain intact, their reputation unsullied by the 10-loss season. Coach Bobby Johnson and his staff of assistants are respected for their ability to get the most from what they have.

It's just that this year, with the injuries they had, what they had wasn't enough to win in the nation's toughest football conference.

NOTES, QUOTES

GAME OF THE YEAR: Mississippi State 15, Vanderbilt 3 -- It occurred way back on Sept. 19, but it was a serious sign that this wouldn't be another bowl season for the Commodores.

Facing what many thought was a very beatable SEC foe, the Commodores instead were pushed around most of the night and simply couldn't generate much of an attack against a team that also failed to qualify for a bowl.

Mississippi State unearthed a major Vanderbilt weakness -- stopping the run. It ran for well over 200 yards, the start of a trend in SEC play.

PLAYER OF THE YEAR: RB Warren Norman -- In a lost season for the Commodores, the emergence of Norman as a game-breaking threat can't be understated. He set the SEC record for most total yardage by a freshman, breaking a 29-year old mark that had been owned by none other than Herschel Walker. Norman's 1,923 all-purpose yards included three kickoff return touchdowns.

FAST FORWARD: The law of averages should tell you that Vanderbilt can't possibly have as many injuries next year. For that reason alone, as well as an offseason's worth of growing and maturing, it should improve.

How much it can improve is anyone's guess, since this is the SEC we're talking about here. But the Commodores return every skill position player of importance, as well as three offensive linemen.

Defensively, Vandy welcomes back three linemen with starting experience as well as hard-hitting middle linebacker Chris Marve. It will be difficult to fill in for cornerback Myron Lewis.

RECRUITING TRAIL: The key here is adding speed and depth. Nothing aids a young quarterback's development more than having a couple of game-breakers around him or some road-graders up front. The big thing for the Commodores is to get more quality players on board, regardless of position. They already have 21 verbal commitments, including WR Bradley Roby and ATH Jerrell Priester.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's an honor, though, just being mentioned with Herschel Walker. That's pretty cool." -- RB Warren Norman on breaking Walker's 29-year old SEC record for most total yards by a freshman.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

PLAYERS TO WATCH IN 2010:
QB Larry Smith -- He showed flashes of brilliance in his first year as a starter but must become more consistent next year and avoid the mistakes that dotted this season.

RB Warren Norman -- After setting the SEC's single-season total yardage record for a freshman, Norman returns with great expectations. Can he become a 1,000-yard rusher and help the offense become more consistent?

MLB Chris Marve -- After producing consistently for two years, Marve will become the defense's leader in his junior year. Can he continue to produce with offenses scheming to reduce his impact?

PRO PROSPECTS:
DE Broderick Stewart -- He has a shot at playing for pay because he can apply pressure off the edge. And he should be at 100 percent for the combines after suffering a serious leg injury in November 2008.

CB Myron Lewis -- He might be the next Commodore corner to reach the NFL, joining D.J. Moore. Lewis has the ability to cover the best receivers and doesn't mind getting physical.

C Bradley Vierling -- He started for two seasons and was consistently the top lineman on the team. Vierling has the intelligence required to play the position and the strength to hold up against physical nose tackles.

ROSTER REPORT:
--RB Jared Hawkins (foot) only played in three games as the injury simply never got better. He was forced to sit out the Commodores' last four games.

--CB Myron Lewis (knee) had to sit out the season finale at Tennessee. That was one reason the Commodores' pass defense was more vulnerable than usual, allowing 224 yards and two touchdowns.

--RT Reilly Lauer (bone bruise) started the final game at Tennessee but couldn't go the distance, as redshirt freshman Caleb Welchans came in to replace him during the second half.


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