Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Which one of Vandy's 23 redshirt freshmen will be stars, or at least play?

Remember Chris Marve, Brandon Barden, T.J. Greenstone, Jamie Graham, Kyle Fischer and Larry Smith? All were redshirt freshmen last season who left their mark on a winning season.

So which of this year's 23 redshirt freshmen will be this year's stars... or starters... or at least recipients of significant playing time?

Here's a Top 5, with thoughts on the rest:

1. Ryan Fowler, PK (5-10, 165) (pictured above): Sure, he looks kind of like Doogie Houser, but Fowler has manly leg strength – in high school, 90 percent of his kickoffs were touchbacks. And the Commodores need somebody to replace Bryant Hahnfeldt right now. Coaches have talked about perhaps letting punter Brett Upson kick PATs and short field goals and let Fowler kick off and boot the long stuff. But with Upson gone after this season, Fowler will handle all the place-kicking chores sooner or later, and the bet here is that it’ll be sooner. The Commodores have zero margin for error, especially on defense and special teams, which means Fowler could be Vandy’s most important redshirt freshman.

2. John Cole, WR (5-11, 170): We’ll know in a day or two whether Vandy will be playing this season with Terrence Jeffers-Harris, who would instantly be the team’s go-to receiver. Cole, a projected starter and a nice combination of speed, sure hands and crisp route running, could be the team’s No. 1 wideout without Jeffers-Harris. And with J-H in the lineup and being double-teamed, Cole could rack up even bigger numbers. Either way, he’s a big part of Vandy’s offensive plans this season. And he’s bigger and stronger than last season, when he was injured returning punts in the season opener.

3. DeAndre Jones, LB (6-0, 225): Sure, Vanderbilt returns all three starting linebackers – Patrick Benoist, Chris Marve and John Stokes – with a fourth, senior Brent Trice, looking spectacular in the spring and threatening to take Stokes’ starting job. But don’t forget last season, when Chris Marve burst on the scene as a redshirt frosh and was impossible to keep off the field. Jones is a highly touted prospect with a reputation as a big hitter. If one of the backers goes down with injury or struggles, Jones has the talent to immediately crack the starting lineup and stay there for four seasons. In the meantime, he’ll be wreaking havoc on special teams.

4. Ryan Seymour, OL (6-4, 294): Robbie Caldwell isn’t satisfied with his starting offensive line and will keep on tinkering to make it better. A big concern has been starting left tackle Reilly Lauer, a former defensive end who’s athletic and posseses a long wingspan but is awfully thin at 6-7, 275. Enter Seymour, another defensive end who moved to offensive tackle, specifically left tackle, in the spring. He’s also bulked up and weighs a good 20 pounds more than Lauer. And now Thomas Welch is listed as the starting left tackle, moving from right tackle, which leaves part-time starting guard Kyle Fischer and little-used sophomore Jamie Williams duking it out at right tackle. Anyway, there’s a shakeup in the works, and Seymour could be a starter – or at least a major part of the rotation – when it’s all said and done.

5. Taylor Loftley, DT (6-2, 280): Defensive tackle is suddenly a strength of the Commodores, with starters Greg Billinger and Adams Smotherman and super-sub T.J. Greenstone returning. It seems natural to expect redshirt freshmen Rob Lohr and Colt Nichter to join the playing rotation and give the Big 3 a rest. Both were on the travel roster last season and practiced with the game-day squad but somehow kept their redshirts. But while they were preparing to play in game situations, Loftley was strapping on the feedbag, slinging around the weights, and putting on 30 pounds of muscle and bulk. It’s just a hunch, but we see him passing Lohr and Nichter by the start of the season and getting some serious minutes.

Here are some other redshirt freshmen who could make a mark this season:

• Johnell Thomas, DE (6-0, 250): Was a beast in the spring. Sure, the Dores already go three-deep at end, but if Thomas continues to improve he could pass Fugger, Kadri and Brannon on the depth chart and be poised for stardom in 2010. Sure, he’s small, but he’s quick.

• Micah Powell, DB (6-0, 200): Ryan Hamilton’s backup will likely get plenty of reps, especially on special teams. The secondary lacks the depth it had last season.

• Rob Lohr, DT (6-4, 280): Listed, with Nichter, as second team at tackle. When he was recruited, one service listed him as an athlete. Big athlete.

• Al Owens, DB (6-2, 215): Listed with Powell as the backup strong safety after playing free safety all spring. Will be challenged by true freshmen like Javon Marshall and Jay Fullam.

• Akeem Dunham, WR (6-3, 198): A basketball star in high school, Dunham’s got speed and good hands and continues to learn the game. Especially if J-H doesn’t become eligible and Alex Washington struggles, the Dores will need a playmaker, and Dunham is a possibility.

• Tristan Strong, LB (6-1, 228): Like Marve last season and Jones this season, he’s got loads of talent, soaked things up as a redshirt frosh, and is determined to get on the field. He can play any backer position.

• Colt Nichter, DT (6-1, 286): Has a strong lower body, understands the scheme, and will get a chance to challenge Lohr and Loftley.

• Richard Kent P (6-2, 190): A rocket-legged walk-on who will back up Brett Upson at punter and may be called upon from time to time to boom a traditional, non-rugby punt.

• Caleb Welchans, OL (6-5, 290): Could provide significant help at either guard or tackle. Not listed on the preseason depth chart, but hit the weights hard in the fall and had an impressive spring practice.

• Michael Bryant, OL (6-5, 285): Competing with Chris Aaron to back up Eric Hensley at right guard, but not listed on the preseason depth chart. Spent last season working on his strength and quickness.

These guys may see some meaningful playing time, but will probably get lost in the sea of players:

• Dexter Daniels, LB (6-1, 225): An athletic player who provides immediate depth at weakside backer, but so does Jones and Strong.

• Archie Barnes, LB (6-3, 225): He’s an athlete still learning to play linebacker, but a bunch of guys on the team already know how to play it.

• John Burrow, DT-DE (6-4, 255): He’s a tweener who provides depth at both positions.

• Richard Cagle, OL (6-4, 275): Projected as a reserve guard but like Bryant and Welchans is not listed on the preseason depth chart. Appears to be the least likely of the four redshirt freshman offensive linemen to get significant playing time this season.

• Josh Jelesky, DE (6-5, 248): At the bottom of a crowded and experienced group of defensive ends.

And then there are the walk-ons:

• Chavez Scott, RB (5-8, 192): Walk-on who turned heads on the scout team last season and showed solid rushing skills in the spring; still, he’s at the bottom of the list of Vandy tailbacks and with three touted true freshmen won’t get much of a chance to change that.

Jameson Sackey, WR (6-1, 205): Walk-on who’s showed ability but needs to take huge strides to see any playing time.

Kurt Lockhart, DB (6-1, 204): A walk-on who’ll get lost in the logjam of five true freshman DBs.

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