Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Five things we learned from Vanderbilt spring training

Spring practice is over and thoughts have turned to final exams. (Study hard, Terence Jeffers.) Here are five things we learned:


At the start of the spring, Johnson said this of Larry Smith: "He's just too smooth of an operator to be on the bench." But his goal was not to name a starter at the end of the spring; his goal was for Larry Smith to get more experience running the first-team offense, to keep Mackenzi Adams healthy, and to give Jared Funk lots of reps in case the Commodores need three quarterbacks like they did last season. And he wants to keep the heat on Smith to earn the job.

Don't misread Bobby Johnson's loyalty to Ted Cain as a lack of concern about his offense. I promise you Bobby's figuring out a way to improve it. And Smith will be a big improvement. Last year Johnson had a quarterback who could run and a quarterback who could lob jump balls. In Smith, he's got a quarterback who can run and a quarterback who's got a cannon. The media continue to play up the quarterback battle between Adams and Smith because they don't realize how good an arm Larry has. They take one look at him and assume he's strictly a running quarterback like Nickson. Remember Larry's bomb that Sean Walker dropped in the Wake Forest game? Or Larry's first two drives of the Music City Bowl — you know, before Chris Nickson replaced him in each one and we had to kick field goals?

Last season, Nickson entered the game whenever we wanted to run, and Adams — and later Smith — entered the game when it was a clear passing situation. Larry Smith can do both, and that will improve both our running and passing games. And Smith's teammates said they were amazed at how cool the quarterback was in the Music City Bowl.


OK, it'll be tough to make first team with Julio Jones and A.J. Green in the league. But if Jeffers has enough credit hours to play in the fall — and Johnson sounds cautiously optimistic he will — he could be the breakout star that the Dore offense has been looking for. We should have a strong short game with tight ends Brandon Barden and Austin Monahan and true freshman wide receiver Brady Brown, a 6-foot-5 possession receiver, and some deeper threats in senior Alex Washington, redshirt sophomore Udom Umoh, sophomore transfer Tray Herndon and redshirt freshman John Cole. Which means defenses won't be able to focus on Jeffers alone, though Smith has the arm to get him the ball whenever he wants to, and Jeffers is big, strong and nasty enough to go get it.


Our entire front seven returns, along with all their backups: Starting tackles Greg Billinger (who dominated in the spring) and Adam Smotherman and supersub T.J. Greenstone (who made the Freshman All-SEC team); starting ends Steven Stone (who was recognized as the top D-Lineman in the spring banquet) and Broderick Stewart (who returns from injury) and three backups with starting experience, Teriall Brannon, Theron Kadri and Tim Fugger; and starting linebackers Chris Marve, Patrick Benoist and John Stokes (who missed spring with injury), and proven backups Brent Trice, Austin Newton, Nate Campbell and Brandon Bryant (who missed last season with injury).

And those guys will be challenged by a boatload of redshirt freshmen: ends John Burrow, Johnnell Thomas and Josh Jelesky; tackles Rob Lohr and Taylor Loftley; and linebackers Tristan Strong, DeAndre Jones, Dexter Daniels and Archie Barnes.

The secondary remains the biggest question mark with the absence of D.J. Moore and Reshard Langford, but cornerback Casey Hayward and safety Sean Richardson have been groomed since last season to replace them and have looked impressive. Cornerback Myron Lewis (recovering from surgery in the spring) should be a star and safety Ryan Hamilton will be a quiet force like he was last season. Jamie Graham's making a smooth transition to cornerback/nickelback.


All five starters return on the offensive line, but count on Coach Robbie Caldwell to keep tinkering with the lineup and making it better. Seniors Thomas Welch and Bradley Vierling are fixtures at tackle and center, respectively, and Kyle Fischer, who made Freshman All-SEC last season, should also stay in the lineup, though he could move from guard to tackle. Junior Reilly Lauer cracked the lineup at left tackle by the end of the season; he's athletic but slight at 6-foot-6, 275 pounds. Senior guard Eric Hensley's starting slot is probably the shakiest, and upperclassmen backups Joey Bailey, Ryan Custer and Chris Aaron had better fight to keep from slipping. That's because redshirt sophomore James Williams and four redshirt freshmen, Richard Cagle, Michael Bryant, Richard Seymour and Caleb Welchans, continue to improve.


At Vanderbilt, defensive backs are more likely to play as true freshmen than any other position. Three years ago, D.J. Moore, Myron Lewis and Brent Trice all played in the secondary as true freshmen, while Alan Strong redshirted. Last season, with every starter and backup returning, true freshmen Casey Hayward and Sean Richardson still cracked the two-deep roster (Trice was moved to linebacker) and Al Owens and Micah Powell were redshirted.

This season, though, five regulars are gone — starters D.J. Moore and Reshard Langford, nickelback Darlron Spead, and backups Josh Allen and Jared Fagan. Hayward and Richardson are ready to go as starters, and sophomore Jamie Graham, who played scout team cornerback his redshirt year and wide receiver last season, appears ready to go at nickelback. But the only proven depth is cornerback Strong, now a junior, and redshirt senior safety Joel Caldwell, a former starter.

Owens and Powell, the two redshirt freshmen, will challenge Caldwell as a backup to Hamilton and Richardson at safety, but the only other cornerback is walk-on Rich Thompkins, who is not the answer.

That's where the true freshmen come in. Cornerbacks Trey Wilson and Eric Samuels are smooth, rangy athletes who'll almost surely crack the two-deep almost as soon as they arrive on campus. Eddie Foster, who runs a 4.3 40 but is 165 pounds soaking wet, will get a chance too but may sit a year.

Javon Marshall, a wicked hitter with frightening closing speed, may get into the mix at safety; fellow frosh Jay Fullam is more likely to redshirt.

So expect at least two true freshmen defensive backs to play in the fall — and as many as four.

Don't expect many other true freshmen to see the field.

Brady Brown, a 6-foot-5 possession guy, should be ready to go at wide receiver.

One of three true freshmen — Zac Stacy, Wesley Tate and Warren Norman — should get a chance early to become the SEC-caliber every-down running back the Commodores have lacked.

Senior Jared Hawkins is plenty tough, but not really big enough to be the battering ram he tries to be and he's returning from a foot injury. He'd be a great situational back, with a short run here and a pass out of the backfield there. Redshirt junior Kennard Reeves looked serviceable in the spring as a feature back. Gaston Miller is a solid little returner and specialty back, but as much as the Vanderbilt staff uses its receivers in running plays, he doesn't really seem necessary in the backfield. And redshirt sophomore Ryan van Rensburg, really a fullback, reeled off some nice runs in the spring but also got stuffed an alarming amount of times on third and short.

Of the three true freshmen, Stacy looks the best on film — a shifty 5-9, 192 pounds who zigs and zags through defenders. Tate is tall and really fast, but looks a bit stiff and runs upright. Norman is smooth, can slice through the line and is supposedly a good receiver but is also the slightest of the three. Good prospects, all.

But I doubt if Johnson burns up these guys' redshirt seasons just to have more tricks in his bag. Hawkins, Reeves and Miller can do the basics, if not spectacularly. Expect Johnson to pick the best-looking back in the first couple weeks of practice and redshirt the other two guys. Tate looks the part and has the sprinter's speed and the pedigree, but don't be surprised if Stacy becomes the guy. Should be interesting.

If tight end Austin Monahan or Brandon Barden go down to injury and backup Justin Green doesn't improve his toughness, then Mason Johnson could play as a true freshman. He's plenty talented, but let's hope he won't be necessary.

Don't expect Charlie Goro to crack into the three-quarterback battle. He'll likely wow folks on the scout team next season.

With five returning starters on the offensive line being challenged by four red-shirt freshmen, expect Wesley Johnson, Mylon Brown and Justin Cabbagestalk to redshirt. Same thing for Thad McHaney, Walker May and Blake Southerland at defensive end/linebacker, where the Commodores are three and four deep.


Taylor Leachman said...

Thanks for the good reporting. I can't wait for next year.


Thanks for reading. I'm looking forward to it too.