Friday, October 16, 2009
Analysis: How Vandy got to 2-4 and why we're still headed in the right direction
I think the majority of Vanderbilt fans support Bobby Johnson and even want to stick with Larry Smith at quarterback. But there's an awful lot of people on radio talk shows and fan message boards (OK, not a lot for most SEC teams, but a lot for Vandy) calling for Johnson to do something fast. This includes:
• Naming Mackenzi Adams the starting quarterback.
• Or playing Mac at wide receiver or safety or both.
• Keeping Larry the starter but inserting Mac on at least a couple of drives per game.
• Giving Jared Funk a chance to play at quarterback instead of just the punt coverage team.
• Burning the redshirt off Charlie Goro and starting him at quarterback.
• Burning the redshirt off Charlie Goro and playing him at wide receiver.
• Burning the redshirt off lineman Wesley Johnson and starting him.
• Passing more.
• Running more.
• Scrapping the Wildcat formation.
• Running the Wildcat formation exclusively.
• Running the option.
• Deploying all three tight ends (Barden, Monahan, Green) in the same formation.
• Playing Jamie Graham at wide receiver.
• Playing Eddie Foster at wide receiver.
In other words, do something and do it now.
Well, that's what we're doing. Our offense last season was a train wreck. The line was light, the backs slow but stout-hearted, the receivers serviceable, the quarterbacks wildly inconsistent.
But here's what everybody forgets about last year's offense: Chris Nickson and Jared Hawkins were money inside the red zone. Of course, they only got to the red zone because of our opportunistic defense and the coffin-corner punts of Brett Upson.
Everybody knew we couldn't keep winning like that. We needed to move the ball the length of the field, or at least get enough first downs to keep our defense from playing 75 percent of the game.
We've being saying for years that we need smoke and mirrors to win because we'll never have the offense to just ram the ball down people's throats like Bobby and probably most of us would like.
So what did Bobby do in the off-season? He did this:
• Installed the spread, to take advantage of our young quarterback and light, athletic offensive linemen.
• Named that young quarterback, Larry Smith, who ran the spread in high school and has a cannon for an arm, the starter and pledged to stick with him like he did Jay Cutler.
• Worked hard to develop James Williams to replace Reilly Lauer, who's too light to play tackle. Put Eric Hensley, one of our best run blockers, next to Williams on the right side.
• Immediately gave the ball to two of our three talented tailbacks, making plans to redshirt the third for the future.
Great, but look what's happened since the spring:
1. Jamie Graham was moved to defensive back to fill the void left by D.J. Moore.
2. Our top returning receiver, Justin Wheeler, saw his career end with a knee injury.
3. Preseason camp started and receiver Terence Jeffers-Harris, one of the stars of the spring, was declared ineligible. Meanwhile, Alan Strong, a key reserve at cornerback, quits the team, precluding a move back to offense for Graham.
4. Receiver John Cole suffered various injuries and missed the entire preseason camp.
5. Jared Hawkins didn't recover from a foot injury, which allowed the three freshmen tailbacks to get even more reps.
6. Zac Stacy and Warren Norman emerged as game-ready SEC tailbacks.
7. James Williams was a force at right tackle, moving Lauer to backup guard.
8. The new offense performed well against a weak Western Carolina team.
9. The receivers looked awful against LSU, but the running game looked strong until Williams was lost for the season in the second half.
10. Fans call for Jamie Graham to move back to wide receiver, but safety Ryan Hamilton is lost for the season, and Graham starts playing some safety to fill the void.
11. In the next game, against Miss State, the receivers can't get separation, the line can't open holes for the tailbacks or protect Larry, and Larry looks like he's trapped in a bad junior high science experiment.
12. The fans call for Jamie Graham to move back to wide receiver, but Graham has a concussion and can't play in the next game.
13. Now Hensley, who had teamed with Williams to form a solid right side of the line, is injured.
And it's been downhill from there. My question to everybody who wants us to make a quick change is this: What exactly do you suggest we do?
We're not a factory that feeds its system with ready-made SEC players. Johnson installed this offense to fit his players but it's like a house of cards built on certain key people. Take somebody like Williams away and the whole thing falls apart. And now the defensive secondary is a house of cards too. If you move Jamie to offense, the secondary will suffer.
The strength of our team is the defense, which has survived Steven Stone not playing, Hamilton being lost for the season and injuries to Graham, safety Sean Richardson, corner/nickel Eric Samuels and true freshman Jay Fullam, who was game-ready when he arrived on campus.
Why has the defensive survived? Because we had four brand new freshmen DBs who were ready to play SEC football right away (Fullam, Samuels, Eddie Foster and Trey Wilson), and four redshirt freshmen linebackers who've seized key backup and special teams roles. Meanwhile, hot prospects Walker May, Thad McHaney and Blake Southerland are lifting and eating and getting ready to play next year.
It's a system and it works. That's starting to happen on offense too. Freshmen Zac Stacy and Warren Norman could play for anybody. Larry's raw for sure, but he can run and he's got Cutleresque arm strength. The problem? Our receivers and most of our offensive linemen couldn't play for any other team in the SEC. That's a big problem, and it's a problem that firing Ted Cain or changing the offense isn't going to fix. Maybe we do those things in the off-season, but it's not going to save our season.
The solution is talent. And help is on the way:
• Offensive line: Wesley Johnson is too light to play right now, but he's packing on the pounds and could start next year as a redshirt frosh. Maybe he could play center. Mylon Brown, Jerome Brown's nephew, is huge and mobile and will compete to start at tackle or guard. James Williams will be back. And commitments Logan Stewart and Grant Ramsay could compete right away.
• Receiver: Commitments include speedsters Bradley Roby and Jonathan Krause and 6-foot-5 target Chris Boyd. These are all 3-star guys with the combination of speed, size and strength that we lack at receiver.
• Other offensive talent: Jerrell Priester looks like a clone of Zac Stacy, but faster. He's one of those guys who could play anywhere in the spread, including receiver, running back and Wildcat QB. That is, if he doesn't play cornerback and follow in D.J.'s footsteps. Then there's Myron Ross, a big strong tailback who could also be a Chris Marve type if he moves to defense. Davis Dudchock is a 4-star tight end.
• Defense: We've gotten commitments from a whopping five D-linemen, though Jared Morse's commitment is getting softer by the minute. But Kyle Woestmann is a stud DT who turned down an offer from Georgia, James Kittredge can play end or tackle, Vince Taylor is 270 pounds and runs a 4.7 40, and Thomas Ryan is a natural at end. All of them are 3-star guys. As usual, we'll have a bunch of DBs who can play right away, including Andre Simmons, Andre Hal, Sharrod Golightly, Karl Butler and Kenneth Ladler.
Sure, things are tough now. The loss to Army stinks. But I believe we're headed in the right direction. Our talent is getting better. All those guys who aren't SEC caliber and didn't pan out as projects are graduating; expect a bunch of them who redshirted (like, say, Gaston Miller) to give up their fifth year of eligibility.