2007 Vanderbilt Preview - Offense

Posted Jul 30, 2007

Preview 2007 Vanderbilt Commodore Offense

Vanderbilt Commodores

Preview 2007 - Offense

- 2007 Vandy Preview | 2007 Vandy Defense Preview
2007 Vandy Depth Chart | 2006 CFN Vanderbilt Preview 

What you need to know: The offense is loaded with experience with nine starters returning including tackle Brian Stamper, who missed most of last year. The line should be tremendous with five senior starters that know how to pass protect and should be better for the running game. Junior receiver Earl Bennett is one of the nation's most productive playmakers and should finally start to get the attention he deserves. Quarterback Chris Nickson is a dangerous run/pass combination with the potential to grow into a star if he can cut down on his interceptions. The running backs aren't special, but they're experienced.

Returning Leaders
Passing: Chris Nickson
160-292, 2,085 yds, 15 TD, 13 INT
Rushing: Chris Nickson
146 carries, 694 yds, 9 TD
Receiving: Earl Bennett
82 catches, 1,146 yds, 6 TD

Star of the offense: Junior WR Earl Bennett
Player that has to step up and become a star: Junior WR George Smith
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore OT Thomas Welch
Best pro prospect: Bennett
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Bennett, 2) OT Brian Stamper, 3) OT Chris Williams
Strength of the offense: Offensive line, quarterback depth
Weakness of the offense:
Running back, receiver depth


Projected Starter: While it wasn't fair to ask anyone to replace Jay Cutler, Chris Nickson did as good a job as anyone could've asked for leading the team in rushing with 694 yards while throwing for 2,085 yards and 15 touchdowns. While he struggled with his consistency and started throwing too many interceptions over the second half of the season, a.k.a. the meat of the SEC slate, he showed he could be an explosive playmaker with his arm as well as his legs. He ran for 150 yards and three touchdowns against Duke, and he threw for 446 yards against Kentucky. Now he has to make better overall decisions, has to spread the ball around more, and has to start winning the close games. This is his team now. 

Projected Top Reserves: The Commodores have their best backup situation in years thanks to the transfer of Richard Kovalcheck from Arizona. The big, strong senior has the team's best arm and enough starting experience to push Nickson and to step in if the offense requires a pure passer. His question is accuracy after struggling in his two years as a Wildcat.

Sophomore Mackenzi Adams has excellent size, tremendous athleticism, and loads of potential. What he doesn't have is the playing time to develop. He'll go into the season as the number two option behind Nickson, but he'll have to fight for it in every practice.

Redshirt freshman Jared Funk has the raw talent to be a top playmaker down the road as long as he shines when he gets a shot in practice. He's the number four option going into the year, but that would quickly change.

Watch Out For ... Nickson to cut down a bit on his running and focus more on hitting the second and third receivers. Earl Bennett is too good a target not to force the ball to, but the more he can take what the defenses give him and the less he takes off when his first option isn't there, the better the offense will be.
Strength: Depth. Has Vanderbilt ever had so many viable starting quarterbacks? If Funk progresses as expected, the Commodores have four that can play. The competition for the number two job will be fierce all season long.
Interceptions. Between Nickson and Kovalcheck, there are too many picks waiting to happen. Cutting down on mistakes is a must for the entire group.
Outlook: Jay Cutler might have been special, but Nickson has the potential to offer a more dangerous look if he becomes a stronger passer, his mobility will make him one of the SEC's most dangerous weapons. Adams has to get more meaningful playing time in case something happens to Nickson.
Rating: 6.5

Running Backs

Projected Starter: Can senior Cassen Jackson-Garrison do a little more in his senior year? Productive over the last two seasons as the team's main running back option, he's a plugger who'll occasionally tear off a big run if he gets an opening. Hardly a scatback, the 6-1, 220-pound former fullback is a good pounder with decent hands when used as a receiver. Now he has to show that he deserves to be a big part of the offense again after seeing his touches diminish late in the year with only 13 carries in the final two games.

Projected Top Reserves: If junior Jeff Jennings doesn't take over the starting job from Jackson-Garrison, he'll be an oft-used second option. At 6-1 and 225 pounds, he's a powerful runner who's fantastic around the goal line and a load to bring down in between the tackles. Not exactly a blazer before, he'll be even more of a straight-ahead runner after missing all of last year recuperating and rehabilitating from a bad knee injury.

The speed back, at least relative to Jackson-Garrison and Jennings, sophomore Jared Hawkins is a yardage machine cranking out 6.9 yards per carry. He's a patient runner who does things veteran running backs do, and now he'll be used more as a receiver to get him the ball in space. The key to his development is blocking; he has to be better at it.

Watch Out For ... A running back might not lead the team in rushing again. Nickson finished with 694 yards, Jackson-Garrison was second with 614. With three good rushing options, they each might take enough carries away from each other to keep any one runner from breaking out.
Strength: Variety. With three runners to carry the load, the coaching staff can go with the hot hand, or legs, and figure out which runner's style is working best. The top three prospects all bring a little something different.
A star. All the backs are average. While Hawkins has good wheels, it would be nice if Jackson-Garrison and Jennings provided more of a burst on the outside. If you could combine all three backs into one, you'd have something special.
Outlook: While Nickson will be the team's most dangerous rushing option, the three-man rotation should be more than productive behind a talented, veteran offensive line. It would be nice if the backs were more involved in the passing game, but at least early on, their job will be to pound the ball to provide a little bit of balance.
Rating: 6


Projected Starters: If junior Earl Bennett played for Florida or LSU, he'd likely be everyone's preseason First-Team All-American. The two-time All-SEC star has been unstoppable catching 161 passes for 2,022 yards and 15 touchdowns in his first two seasons, and has the attention of NFL scouts that first saw him work well with Jay Cutler in 2005. At 6-1 and 202 pounds, he has the size to outmuscle most corners to go with the speed to run by the mediocre ones. Few players in the nation are better when they get into a groove with nine career games with eight catches are more. Just ask Kentucky how hard it is to handle the junior, who caught 24 passes for 319 yards and six touchdowns in the two meetings with the Wildcats.

The Vandy receiving corps is hardly a one-man gang with 6-3, 195-pound junior George Smith about to come into his own on the other side. After missing all of 2004 with a near-death illness, he returned to be a good reserve and then finally started to produce at the end of last season with 15 catches in the final five games as he started to build a bit of a rapport with Nickson. With all the attention paid to Bennett, Smith has to flourish in single coverage.

Junior Sean Walker, one of the team's best athletes, only caught 16 passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns averaging 12.75 yards per catch. Well past the knee problems that plagued him two years ago, he should use his speed to stretch the field and be a dangerous deep target opposite Bennett.

The tight end situation will be up in the air until the start of the season with junior Brad Allen getting the first look and sophomore Jake Bradford likely to be used more for his blocking. Allen got five starts and made three catches for 57 yards, and now he has to prove he can be a more reliable target. The 6-6, 260-pound Bradford had injury issues and didn't catch a pass. 

Projected Top Reserves: At 6-3 and 210 pounds, junior Bryant Anderson is a bigger outside option than Earl Bennett. While not nearly the talent Bennett is, Anderson has enough talent to grow into more of a factor with decent speed to go along with his size. He caught three passes for 32 yards as he finally got into the mix at the end of the season.

Sophomores Alex Washington and Justin Wheeler are smaller, quicker options. Washington was the team's top kick and punt return option, but struggled to break out averaging just 5.6 yards per punt return and 19.2 yards on kickoffs. He'll start out behind George Smith after catching three passes for 12 yards. Wheeler has mostly been a special teamer so far, he's still looking for his first catch.

Watch Out For ... George Smith and Sean Walker to take advantage of the single coverage. With Nickson getting better behind a line that should give him time, the second and third options will be available when Bennett is blanketed. Bennett will have his games, but it'll be a more diverse passing attack.
Strength: Bennett. Few teams have a number one target who can rip off ten catches and 100 yards like it was nothing, much less a program that Vanderbilt that's not exactly a receiver factory. He's the absolute real deal.
Tight end. It would be nice if Allen or Bradford could turn into a reliable short-to-midrange target, and they still might, but they're still a major question mark and aren't going to be the first option with the good wide receivers needing the ball.
Outlook: As long as Bennett is being Bennett, this should be one of the SEC's most effective receiving corps. It'll only be as good as Smith and Walker can be. If they're not tremendous, there might be a big problem considering the lack of proven depth. If Bennett gets hurt, there might be real problems finding second and third options.
Rating: 7.5

Offensive Linemen

Projected Starters: The tackles should be excellent with senior veterans Chris Williams and Brian Stamper on the outside. The 6-5, 295-pound Stamper got a medical redshirt after having problems with a back injury, and now he should be one of the anchors up front and an all-star performer once he gets back following a foot problem. He was a star in 2005 earning Second Team All-SEC honors, is in better shape, and should be even quicker in pass protection. He'll be the one the team runs behind.

Stamper will play on the right side, while Williams, an emerging star, will man his spot again on the left, where he earned Second Team All-SEC honors. A tough veteran who can play guard or tackle, he kept QB Chris Nickson relatively clean protecting his blind side. At 6-6 and 315 pounds, he has NFL potential and could be a first day pick if he can prove he can consistently handle the SEC speed rushers.

The interior is solid, if unspectacular. 290-pound senior center Hamilton Holliday was the iron man on the line starting every game and rarely missing a snap. While he's not the most athletic lineman in the SEC, he was a steadying rock considering Nickson was getting his feet wet. The key to his game is his health; last year was his first one without injury problems.

The guards were good last season and should be terrific this year after their season of experience. 6-5, 310-pound senior Josh Eames can play either guard or tackle spot looking most comfortable on the left side. Toughness isn't a question after fighting his way through a knee injury that limited him over the second half of the year. While he wasn't quite the same after, he still was a solid contributor moving around where needed between right tackle and left guard.

On the right side, 6-5, 315-pound Merritt Kirchoffer has to stay healthy. He was great early on before getting hurt and being forced out of position getting moved to tackle when injuries hit the rest of the line. A dominant run blocker, he can move just about anyone once he gets locked up.

Projected Top Reserves: While Kirchoffer is the main man at right guard as long as he's healthy, sophomore Ryan Custer might as well be considered starter No. 1A after finding his way on the field in every game with three starts on the left side. A true guard for the offense, he could also be moved over to defensive tackle if needed. He's that physical.

Fellow sophomore Brad Vierling spent most of his redshirt freshman season as a backup center, and now he'll see time both behind Holliday and at both guard spots. One of the team's unsung heroes when injuries hit, he played well when thrown into the fire.

The line's star of the future is 6-6, 305-pound sophomore Eric Hensley, who got a little bit of playing time last season spending most of his action on special teams. Able to play tackle or guard, he'll get the most work at left tackle as the understudy behind Chris Williams as he prepares to take over the starting job in 2008.

On the other side, former tight end and high school quarterback Thomas Welch is one of the team's most athletic lineman. A rangy 6-6 and 280 pounds with long arms and quick feet, he's still growing into his frame trying to add on the pounds. 

Watch Out For ... Several young players getting forced into playing time throughout the year. Injuries and other issues forced several players to see time in 2006, and it'll pay off with good developed depth. With five seniors likely to start, the coaching staff has to make sure the cupboard isn't bare going into 2008.
Strength: Experience and the tackles. With Brian Stamper getting another year, the starting five up front is loaded with veteran talent while giving the Commodores one of the SEC's best pair of tackles. Chris Nickson should get all the time he wants to throw.
Can everyone stay healthy? Everyone up front seems to have had problems at one time or another over their careers, and while you can't plan for injuries, considering the past, the coaching staff had better be ready to do some shuffling.
Outlook: This should be one of the better starting fives in the SEC on experience alone. While this isn't the most athletic group, it'll work extremely well together and give all the skill players time to work. Wake Forest was able to win the ACC title thanks to its strong offensive line, and while Vanderbilt won't win the SEC championship, the line could be main factor if this is a bowl year.
Rating: 8


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