Two-a-Days rolls on with our fifth installment, in which we take a closer look at the Vanderbilt Commodores.
To read previous entries, click HERE.
Vanderbilt in a flash:
Head Coach: Bobby Johnson, 9th season
2009 Record: 2-10 (0-8 SEC)
2009 Stats: Total offense, 306.33 ypg (11th SEC, 110th nationally), Total defense, 362.75 (9th SEC, 56th nationally)
Coaching Changes: Jimmy Kiser takes over playcalling and offensive coordinator duties, while Ted Cain remains on the staff as tight ends coach. Linebackers coach Warren Belin left for the same job at Georgia. DC Bruce Fowler takes over LB duties, while former Auburn standout Mike Pelton takes over as D ends coach.
Starters Returning: Offense (5), Defense (5), Special Teams (1)
Key Player Losses: CB Myron Lewis, C Vradley Vierling, OL Thomas Welch
Big Games: LSU (9/11), @ Georgia (10/16), Florida (11/6) and Tennessee (11/20)
Non-Conference Slate: Northwestern (9/4), @ Connecticut (10/2), Eastern Michigan (10/9), Wake Forest (11/27)
After years of consistent progress, it was back to the Vandy of years past in 2009 as Bobby Johnson's crew failed to win an SEC game. While the defense had its moments, the offense was a train wreck, and neither Larry Smith or Mackenzie Adams could get things going. So, has Johnson and his staff been able to find some answers this spring?
To find out, I checked in with Vandy beat writer Jeff Lockridge of The Tennessean, and here's what he had to offer…
David Hale: After years of steady progress, things unraveled quickly last year at Vandy, including a winless season in the SEC. What was the mood this spring? Were players upbeat and resilient or is there some lingering effects of last year's disappointing finish?
Jeff Lockridge: The mood was fairly upbeat. As the spring went along, I think the defensive players became more upbeat and the offensive players less so given how things went on the field. Of course, everyone at Vandy was extremely upbeat last spring after the 2008 Music City Bowl win, and that didn't translate to much good in the fall.
Overall, it was a rocky offseason at Vandy: the murder of four-star RB signee Rajaan Bennett in Georgia; linebackers coach Warren Belin leaving for Georgia; redshirt freshman RB Wesley Tate breaking his foot. Several projected starters (OT James Williams, LB Tristan Strong, TE Austin Monahan) couldn't go this spring due to ACLs or broken bones sustained last season. Couple that with the fact DT Adam Smotherman (ACL) and OT Ryan Seymour (shoulder) went down early in the spring, and it wasn't a best-case scenario playing out here.
DH: As bad as the offense was for Vandy a year ago, things may have looked even worse during the spring game. Was it as ugly as it sounded, and how much of the offensive problems stem from the question marks at the QB position?
JL: It was ugly. The defense looked very strong, but that doesn't excuse a complete absence of offense. There are concerns at quarterback. There also are concerns with who the QBs will throw to and whether they will get enough protection from a young, revamped line. The only sure thing about this offense is sophomore RBs Warren Norman and Zac Stacy.
It's fair to say the coaches would love to see Larry Smith become more comfortable, accurate and consistent in the pocket and really take the starting QB job by force. That didn't happen this spring. Backup Jared Funk had a nice spring, but it's tough to envision him winning the job given his lack of game experience. That leaves junior-college transfer Jordan Rodgers, brother of Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, who is still learning the system. He was sharp toward the end of the spring. Ideally the coaches would prefer to redshirt him. That, however, may depend on Smith.
DH: While offense wasn't a plus for Vandy, the silver lining was the impressive freshman campaign of Warren Norman. Has he continued to improve this spring, and has anyone else stepped up that could provide a spark to complement Norman?
JL: Norman looked fine this spring. The coaches didn't overwork him. They know what they have in him. Stacy looks healthy after a bad ankle sprain last season. Keeping both of those guys healthy will be a key to Vandy sustaining drives. The duo was on the field together at times this spring, flanking the QB in the shotgun, with one running routes and the other staying in to block.
As far as other sparks, that's what this staff is searching high and low for. TE Brandon Barden, who may line up in the slot some to create mismatch problems, is probably the next best bet.
DH: Some key injuries this spring for Vandy, including Ryan Seymour (shoulder), Adam Smotherman (ACL) and Chris Marve (shoulder). What's their status for the season, and what kind of impact could this have on the Commodores going forward?
JL: Marve had his shoulder scoped and should be fine within a month or so. Seymour should be healed up some time this summer. Smo is the question mark. If you go by the six-month rehab timetable, he'll miss a good portion of the season. He intends to rehab the knee and be back for the season opener, but that's unlikely. I'm told linemen often take longer to heal ACLs, and if that's the case he could miss the whole season. Smo's absence hurts the team, but fortunately defensive tackle is one of the deepest spots on this team in terms of talent.
DH: For all the on-field stories this spring, the biggest news for Vandy was sadly the death of recruit Rajaan Bennett. How much did that affect the team this spring, and is it a rallying point the players are embracing or a tragic story they're hoping to put behind them?
JL: It's hard to say how the current players are affected because they had very little contact with Rajaan. A good number of the signees are affected by it, particularly the players Vandy signed out of Georgia. Many of them knew Rajaan, played against him and befriended him. Without question, the group most affected by his death here is the coaching staff. Bobby Johnson was torn up when he heard the news. You could see in his face that he had come to care for this young man.
BONUS QUESTION: Georgia fans are liking what they've seen from former Vandy assistant Warren Belin so far. What can you tell the UGA folks about what they can expect from Belin this season?
JL: Belin's track record speaks for itself. He had a hand in the development of many superb linebacker at Vandy, some now in the NFL. Vandy's LBs were surprised and sad to see him go. I suspect he'll do well with the Bulldogs.
Are there any door prizes for answering the bonus question? A mint, a balloon, a temporary tattoo of the new UGA VIII? Only kidding.
We'll be sure to put at least a "Russ" tattoo in the mail for Jeff for helping us out with some great insight. You can read his Vandy coverage for The Tennessean HERE or check out his blog HERE.
So, what say you? Can Vandy be competitive this season or will it be a return to the dregs of the SEC for the Commodores?
And don't forget, we'll be wrapping up Two-A-Days with an in-depth look at Georgia, so if you have questions you want answered, leave them in the comments section here or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NEXT UP: LSU this afternoon.