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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Two-A-Days: Vanderbilt

Over the past few weeks, I've traded emails with beat writers for each SEC team, along with Georgia's three other BCS-conference opponents to get some insider insight into what fans can expect from UGA's competition in 2009.

Each day, we'll preview two teams, culminating with a big-picture look at the SEC and a deeper look at the biggest issues facing your Georgia Bulldogs. To submit a question for the Georgia entry in Two-A-Days, send me an email with the subject line "Two-A-Days" and I'll do my best to find you an answer.

The third entry in the series is the Vanderbilt Commodores.

Head coach: Bobby Johnson (8th season)
2008 Record: 7-6 (4-4 SEC)
Total Offense: 256.23 ypg (12th in SEC, 117th overall)
Total Defense: 319.62 ypg (8th in SEC, 30th overall)
On the docket: Vandy opens its season Sept. 5 vs. Western Carolina and hosts Georgia on October 17.

Vanderbilt not only made it to its first bowl game since the Reagan administration (the first four years, not the second) but actually won, adding to Bobby Johnson's reputation as a guy who gets the most from the least. But the truth is, Vandy had plenty of talent last year -- even if they are still Vandy -- and the 'Dores will return some top players in 2009, including linebacker Chris Marve, one of the SEC's top defenders. So, can Vandy actually build on its first bowl win in a quarter-century? I talked to the Tennessean's Maurice Patton to find out.

David Hale: Given the historical perspective, it was a pretty impressive season last year for Vanderbilt, finishing with a bowl berth and win for the first time in a long time. But they also lost six of their last seven games of the regular season, too. From what you've seen this spring, is Vandy more the team that struggled down the stretch or the team that toppled Boston College in the Music City Bowl? How motivated is the team to continue to build on last year's breakthrough season?

Maurice Patton:
I think the truth about the '09 Vanderbilt team is somewhere between last year's 5-0 start and the 1-6 finish. They return a bunch of starters, particularly on defense, but the losses are key -- cornerback D.J. Moore, safety Reshard Langford and most of their top receivers. I do think that the bowl victory was the next step in the program's continued improvement under Bobby Johnson, and I feel like that taste of success has the players and coaches motivated to try to achieve that much and more in '09.

DH: For the past couple seasons, Chris Nickson and Mackenzi Adams split time at QB. Nickson is gone, but Larry Smith now seems to be pushing Adams. How do you see the QB battle playing out? And with Justin Wheeler's injury, who will the QBs have to throw to? Can Terence Jeffers step up to have a breakout season?

MP: The coaching staff showed enough confidence in Smith to start him in one of the program's biggest games in 50 years, despite it being his first start ever. That, and his performance in that start, is an indication to me that it will be his job to lose. And it makes sense, given his status as a redshirt sophomore and his upside. Whether it's Smith or someone else at quarterback, the receiving corps is talented but untested. Terence Jeffers doesn't have to have a breakout season, but he needs to be a factor at the position as do Alex Washington and Udom Umoh.

DH: Vandy is a bit like Georgia in this respect: While the skill positions remain question marks to a large extent, the Commodores will return a very experienced offensive line after struggling at that position a year ago. How good did the big guys up front look this spring, and how big of a step forward can the line take in 2009?

With all five offensive line starters from last fall returning, the unit continued to improve this spring while developing some versatility and depth as well. That should be a strength for Vanderbilt this fall, in a similar manner to two years ago when the line was led by eventual NFL first-round pick Chris Williams.

DH: Vandy's D returns nine starters from a year ago, led by standout linebacker Chris Marve. Having watched them this spring, does this group actually have a chance to be one of the elite units in the SEC, and how much better might Marve, in particular, be in his sophomore season?

Given some of the other defensive units returning throughout the SEC, it's tough to say Vanderbilt will be among the elite defenses. However, sophomore linebacker Chris Marve proved himself as a playmaker last season along with senior Patrick Benoist, senior defensive tackle Greg Billinger, senior safety Ryan Hamilton and senior cornerback Myron Lewis. The Commodores have plenty of experienced pieces in place to be one of the better units in the league.

DH: After seeing the team for the past month or so, what jumped out at you about this spring in a positive way, and what would you say are the biggest questions Vanderbilt still needs to answer before the season begins?

One of the things I was struck by in watching Vanderbilt through spring practice was the quiet confidence as they went about their business. The bowl victory really seems to have raised the team's self-esteem, and understandably. Personnel-wise, sophomores Casey Hayward and Jamie Graham will help soften the loss of Moore at cornerback. Again, receiver is probably the biggest question mark coming out of the spring. The talent is there; it's just a matter of some guys stepping forward and making some plays.

* Maurice Patton is the Vanderbilt beat writer for The Tennessean in Nashville. You can find his Vandy coverage online HERE or check out his Vanderbilt blog HERE. His spring practice wrap up can be found HERE.

NEXT UP: Arizona State with Arizona Republic beat writer Jeff Metcalfe.

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