Monday, March 23, 2009

Vanderbilt spring training notes: Hayward looks Moore-esque, quarterback battle continues, redshirt frosh emerge on D

Guess how many touchdowns the Vandy offense generated in an 80-play scrimmage on Saturday? Um, two.

Guess how many touchdowns the Vandy defense generated while defending on those 80 plays? One.

Sounds kind of like last season, huh?

Speaking of last season, the 80 plays were divided between the three quarterbacks, which is normal for the spring but definitely not normal for a regular season.

Jared Funk, the redshirt junior, is getting tons of snaps in an effort to give him one last chance to compete for playing time. Larry Smith is the heir apparent and if he grabs the starting position in the fall like everybody believes he will, then Mackenzi Adams will be as battle-tested a backup as there is in the SEC, leaving Funk to tote the clipboard or give hand signals or whatever for the fourth straight season. And next spring, if Smith has established himself as the leader of the offense, then all eyes will be on Charlie Goro’s development as the future of the program. So if Jared is going to ever see the field as a Commodore, he’s going to have to play out of his mind this spring or move to another position and bulk up like Steven Bright did a couple of seasons ago when he transformed himself into a pretty good pass-catching H-back.

On Saturday, Funk fumbled his first snap but then settled down and moved the ball with passes to redshirt senior Alex Washington and walk-on Chris DeGeorge, neither expected to give the team much of a boost next season. Four drives later, he got the nod and moved the ball with a pass to Washington and then a 28-yard TD strike to Udom Umoh, a redshirt sophomore who emerged last season after Smith cracked the lineup. It was the only touchdown pass of the scrimmage.

Larry Smith started the scrimmage and moved the ball well but then the coaches stopped the drive in the red zone. Maybe they don’t want Smith to be anointed too early. You know, people like us go crazy whenever Larry does anything good and want him to be the only quarterback on the field in the fall. (Look at our poll on the right. Mackenzi Adams doesn’t have a single vote from fans to be next year's starter.) Smith did move the team into the red zone later in the scrimmage, but underthrew a pass to Turner Wimberly (speaking of former quarterbacks who’ll do anything for playing time) and it was picked off by Casey Hayward and returned 100 yards for a touchdown. Whoops. One high note: Smith’s favorite target — and vice-versa — is Terence Jeffers, who’s without a doubt the team’s biggest weapon at receiver. (Keep going to class and racking up those credit hours, Terence.) He also distributes the ball well, finding tight ends Brandon Barden and Justin Green and receiver Umoh.

Mackenzi Adams’ favorite target on Saturday was Minnesota transfer Tray Herndon, whom he found for three receptions. He also had a 68-yard strike to Umoh, who raced into the end zone, but it was called back because of a penalty. Adams did put together a scoring drive to end the scrimmage, capped by a short plunge by Ryan van Rensburg. The coaches already know what he can – and can’t – do. If Smith falters, the coaches won’t hesitate to put Adams on the field.

Other notes:

• Casey Hayward (pictured above) was the star of the scrimmage. How confident is the sophomore cornerback? He actually told reporters he’d gotten beat by Turner Wimberly and got the pick six because Smith threw a bad pass. Most guys would have just said they knew what was going to happen and held back a little and then broke on the ball. Hayward said he got beat by a guy at the bottom of the depth chart and then got lucky. Lucky people will say they are good. Good people – who know they’re good – will say they are lucky.

• Three receivers were all over the place on Saturday. Redshirt sophomore Udom Umoh caught a pass from each of the three quarterbacks, including a touchdown from Funk and a long touchdown from Adams that was called back. Jeffers, the junior transfer, continued to shine with tough catches. He’s a big, physical receiver – unlike the guys he’s replacing, speedy but slight Sean Walker, drop-plagued George Smith and the injured Justin Wheeler. The other transfer, the sophomore Herndon, also looked sharp, making a spectacular fingertip grab of an Adams pass.

• Receiver Akeem Dunham, defensive tackle T.J. Greenstone, and linebackers Chris Marve, Patrick Benoist and Michael Garcia sat out with minor injuries.

• A bunch of redshirt freshmen had big hits and looked like players on defense, including tackles Rob Lohr and Taylor Loftley, linebacker DeAndre Jones, safety Al Owens and ends Josh Jelesky and Johnell Thomas. Everybody seems to think Jones could be another Chris Marve, who could make people forget about Patrick Benoist — when he finishes his career at the end of this year — even faster than Marve made people forget about Jonathan Goff and Marcus Buggs. But we really need depth at D-Line, where it was a miracle that we survived with only Adam Smotherman, Greg Billinger and Greenstone last season, so it's great that Lohr and Loftley are playing well. Colt Nichter could emerge too. And despite going five deep at end (Steven Stone, Brandon Stewart, Theron Kadri, Teriall Brannon and Tim Fugger), having two or three hungry young guys won't hurt either.

• The three candidates to replace Bryant Hahnfeldt – redshirt freshman Ryan Fowler, senior punter Brett Upson and senior John Laughery — kicked well. Look for Fowler to win the job and for Upson to step in if he falters.

• With Jared Hawkins missing spring practice and perhaps the team's best three running backs finishing high school, it's now or never for redshirt junior Kennard Reeves, who looked strong carrying the rock in the Wake Forest game; Gaston Miller, a shifty little guy who's been primarily a return man; and redshirt sophomores Jermaine Doster and Ryan van Rensburg, neither who've played in their Vanderbilt careers. Reeves, Miller and van Rensburg all had carries of 14 or more yards on Saturday, but Miller and van Rensburg were each stuffed on third-and-short. Miller's small and van Rensburg's really a fullback on a team whose only fullback last season was walk-on Matt Bubis. Doster hasn't gotten any meaningful totes yet. Still looks like Reeves is the best bet to back Hawkins next season or replace him if he aggravates the foot injury — but he'd better look out if Wesley Tate, Warren Norman or particularly Zac Stacy burst on the scene in the fall.

• No word yet on the progress of the offensive line or how Jamie Graham’s transition to cornerback is going. Anybody seen or heard anything?

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