2008 Vanderbilt Preview - Offense
Posted May 20, 2008

CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - Vanderbilt Commodore Offense

Vanderbilt Commodores

Preview 2008 - Offense

- 2008 CFN Vanderbilt Preview | 2008 Vanderbilt Offense
- 2008 Vanderbilt Defense | 2008 Vanderbilt Depth Chart
- 2007 CFN Vanderbilt Preview | 2006 CFN Vanderbilt Preview 

What you need to know: It's rebuilding time with only three starters from an offense that wasn't any good last year. Even with five senior offensive linemen, star receiver Earl Bennett and a ton of potential in the backfield, the attack was 103rd in the nation in total offense and averaged a mere 22 points per game. The only way things improve is if Mackenzi Adams and/or Chris Nickson improve the quarterback situation. Never consistent last year, the passing game struggled even with Bennett, and now it has to find a new No. 1 receiver. The O line shouldn't be that bad considering the wholesale change of starters, and the running backs should be serviceable, but not explosive. Again, it's all up to Adams and Nickson. They're veterans, and as they go, so will go the season.

Returning Leaders
Passing: Mackenzi Adams
101-182, 1,043 yds, 9 TD, 6 INT
Rushing: Jeff Jennings
96 carries, 346 yds, 2 TD
Receiving: George Smith
32 catches, 397 yds, 3 TD

Star of the offense: Senior QB Chris Nickson and/or junior QB Mackenzi Adams
Player who has to step up and become a star: Nickson and/or Adams
Unsung star on the rise: Redshirt freshman WR Udom Umoh
Best pro prospect:
Junior OT Thomas Welch
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Welch, 2) OT Eric Hensley, 3) RB Jeff Jennings
Strength of the offense: Backfield options, depth at tackle
Weakness of the offense: Explosiveness, quarterback consistency


Projected Starter: While it'll be a battle all off-season for the starting job, the way junior Mackenzi Adams closed out the 2007 season likely gives him the edge. He got plenty of work early in the year before taking over and doing a decent job, highlighted by a three-touchdown performance in the one-point heartbreaker at Tennessee. At 6-2 and 212 pounds, he has decent size and terrific athleticism, but he doesn't have the biggest arm and can be streaky. If he can show more mobility and more flash, after running for 289 yards and three touchdowns including two against Florida, he'll be too dangerous to keep off the field.

Projected Top Reserves: Along with Adams, senior Chris Nickson could be considered a starter, or at least No. 1A on the depth chart. The main man going into last year, he didn't build on a big sophomore season and threw for 763 yards and six touchdowns along with five interceptions, but four of the scoring passes came in the opener against Richmond and the other two came against Eastern Michigan. Trying to force too many plays that weren't there, and not showing much in the way of running ability, he lost the job midway through the season and now has to prove he can be a good decision maker and be far better in SEC play.

If Adams and Nickson struggle to get things moving, sophomore Jared Funk could play a role sooner than later. He hasn't seen the field yet after working as a scout teamer, but he was able to show off his tremendous arm in practices and could add more of a passing element to the mix.

Eventually, redshirt freshman Larry Smith will play a big role. A scout teamer last year as he learned the ropes, Smith has the combination of skills to eventually be everything the Commodore offense needs. While he wasn't a huge recruit, he was a two-time all-star performer in Alabama and led his Prattville team to a state title.

Watch Out For ... Funk and Smith to see time. The Commodores used three quarterbacks last year and never really settled on any one to be the main man. While it'll be between Adams and Nickson to carry the workload, the young prospects could see more than their share of time ... and not just in blowouts.
Strength: Experience. Nickson has been through the battles for the last few years and Adams got his taste of SEC play over the second half of last season. While neither one stood out, the time spent playing some of the best of the best teams will make them far more prepared this season for what should be another brutal SEC slate.
Consistency. The offense needs to know it can count on its quarterback to produce game in and game out. There doesn't need to be a slew of 300-yard passing days, but keeping the interceptions to a minimum and keeping the chains moving is a must.
Outlook: Nickson wasn't able to take the next step after a promising sophomore season and gave way to Adams halfway through the year. Now the two will be in a battle for the starting job all season long unless one of them steps up and becomes more of a steady playmaker. Vandy simply can't win being 95th in the nation in passing efficiency and 107th in total passing yards. Young prospects Funk and Smith could see time early on if Nickson and Adams aren't producing .
Rating: 6

Running Backs

Projected Starter: It'll be a combination of backs making up for the loss of leading rusher Cassen Jackson-Garrison with senior Jeff Jennings likely getting the start. That doesn't mean he'll be a workhorse, but he should be the first option after finishing second on the team with 346 yards and two touchdowns. At 6-1 and 215 pounds, he's a pounding runner who'll try to get the hard yards on the inside, but don't expect any breakaway dashes. The key will be how much work he can handle on a regular basis now that his knee has had two years to heal after a bad injury kept him out all of 2006. If nothing else, he'll be used more around the goal line.

Projected Top Reserves: Jennings might start, but he'll split time with 5-10, 200-pound junior Jared Hawkins, a patient back who's great at bursting into the open once he gets a little room to move. He wasn't used as much as a receiver as he should've been, making just seven catches for 73 yards, but that should change this season now that he'll get more work. He ran for 267 yards without a touchdown and had one game with double-digit carries, a ten-carry, 61-yard day against Miami University.

Jennings and Hawkins are expected to form a decent 1-2 punch, but the excitement could come from 5-11, 200-pound sophomore Kennard Reeves. A potential No. 3 back in the mix with the ability to run inside or out, he'll do more than get six yards on three carries like he did last year, and he'll be far more than just a special teamer.

Ready to be thrown into the mix are sophomore Gaston Miller and redshirt freshmen Ryan van Rensburg and Jermaine Doster. Miller isn't big at only 5-7 and 170 pounds, but he's the potential home-run hitter the backfield doesn't have. He's the speed while the 215-pound van Rensburg is the power. Doster, the brother of former VU back, Kwane, will likely be a special teamer.

Watch Out For ... Hawkins. The junior showed just enough last year to earn more of a look this season, and while Jennings will likely be the main main for key stretches, there will be an even split throughout the year.
Strength: Variety. The quarterbacks help carry a bit of the rushing load, but in a perfect world the Commodore backfield uses three or for backs in the mix to offer a variety of looks.
Big plays. Unless Miller can turn into a producer early on, there isn't any threat for a big dash. The longest run by a back last season was 26 yards.
Outlook: While there isn't any top-flight SEC talent for defenses to worry about, there are enough good players and enough good options to revolve the offense around the ground game and be effective. Jennings and Hawkins should combine for over 1,000 yards, but the key will be the development of the youngsters like Miller, van Rensburg and Doster. The quarterbacks will help make the rushing stats look decent, but it'll be the combination of the five backs that has to carry the team.
Rating: 6


Projected Starters: The loss of Earl Bennett early to the NFL is a killer, but the Commodores still have experience returning. The key will be for senior George Smith to go from a nice number two to a go-to target after finishing second on the team with 32 catches for 397 yards and three touchdowns. At 6-3 and 202 pounds, he's a big, physical receiver who was steady throughout the year before closing out with a seven catch performance against Wake Forest. After missing all of 2004 with a near-death illness, he returned to be a good, functional receiver with 76 career grabs with five touchdowns, but if he doesn't shine, the passing game won't improve.

Needing to make more of an impact is senior Sean Walker after making 20 catches for 270 yards and three touchdowns. Now that he's well past the knee injury that kept him out a few years ago, his deep speed should be utilized more on a regular basis. He can also be used as a kick returner and a runner at times; he ran for a 15-yard score against Georgia.

Junior Justin Wheeler caught ten passes for 87 yards and a score last season, and now he'll get the third slot in the starting rotation ... at least for the time being. The six-foot, 175-pounder was mostly a special teamer before getting more work late in the season with five catches in his final two games. He'll have a ton of work to do to keep a starting job, but at least he'll be part of the mix.

Junior Jake Bradford split time last season with Brad Allen, who was a decent blocker and caught five passes, but now the job should be his. He's not a prime receiver, catching four passes for 80 yards on the season with a 30-yard score against Kentucky, but at 6-6 and 270 pounds, he's a big-time run blocker.

Projected Top Reserves: While the receiving corps already has some established veterans, the new prospects are generating the buzz, particularly redshirt freshman Udom Umoh, who's expected to take a starting spot sooner than later. While he's not huge at 5-11 and 170 pounds, he has tremendous speed and the type of next-level wheels the offense needs. A Georgia state high school track star, Umoh ran a 21.7 in the 200 meters and a 48.6 in the 400.

On the way is one of the team's top recruits, John Cole, who could be the immediate replacement for Bennett. The record-setting Kentucky high school star has the speed and ability to quickly become a No. 1 target. Very smart and very athletic, he caught 28 touchdown passes last year and 69 on 237 grabs for his high school career.

Junior Alex Washington was the team's top punt returner averaging a pedestrian 6.6 yards per try, and was decent as a kickoff returner, and he was supposed to grow into a big receiver after catching nine passes for 120 yards in a limited role. That'll have to wait until next year, at the earliest, after tearing his ACL on the first day of spring ball.

An interesting prospect in the rotation could be senior Andrew Diomande, a 6-1, 195-pound transfer from Clemson who made for catches for 70 yards for the Tigers. While he's not going to start, he could be the type of player who makes a big play from out of nowhere when he gets his chance.

Pushing Bradford for time at tight end are sophomores Justin Green and Austin Monahan. They're not the blockers Bradford is, but they're each promising receivers. The 6-6, 235-pound Green caught four passes for 38 yards and the 6-6, 248-pound Monahan caught a five-yard pass. Each will be much more involved this season.

Watch Out For ... the youngsters. Umoh and Cole are far more talented than Smith and Walker. It's just a question of how quickly they can be ready for a big role.
Strength: Veteran starters and promising newcomers. The corps would've been something special had Bennett stuck around, but as is there are decent veterans to rely on until the new guns are ready.
No. 1 receiver. At the moment, Vandy doesn't have one. While that could quickly change depending on the emergence of a few players, it'll be next to impossible to replace Bennett's 75 catches, 830 yards and five touchdowns from one guy.
Outlook: Even with Earl Bennett being Earl Bennett, the passing game was mediocre. The quarterbacks had a lot to do with that, but the other receivers weren't exactly explosive. Now it's up to Smith and Walker to come up with huge senior seasons, while Umoh and Cole have to show that the future is now. Anything out of the tight end, a weakness in the passing game for a few years, would be a nice plus.
Rating: 6

Offensive Linemen

Projected Starters: Good luck trying to replace Chris Williams and Brian Stamper at tackle. Stamper was a four-year starter, while Williams might have been the best lineman in the school's history. Ready to try to step in and take over will be juniors Thomas Welch and Eric Hensley, with the 6-6, 310-pound Hensley playing for Stamper on the right side and the 6-6, 300-pound Welch playing for Williams on the left.

Welch spent last year as Williams' understudy and should be ready after seeing a little bit of playing time in almost every game and on special teams. Originally a quarterback, he started out at Vandy as a huge tight end before moving to tackle. He's not the athlete Williams is, but he can move.

Hensley is a terrific prospect and could be every bit the producer Stamper was, but he missed half of last year after getting suspended and now has to establish himself as a steady and consistent blocker. Tough and versatile enough to play guard if needed, he's a tackle who could be a fringe All-SEC performer with a little more playing time.

6-3, 292-pound junior Bradley Vierling will take over for long-time starter Hamilton Holliday in the middle. Vierling saw as much time as any Commodore backup lineman and won't be coming in cold; he was effective when thrown to the wolves as a freshman when injuries struck. While his future is at center, he could move to either guard spot if needed.

The guards also have to be replaced, but the left side should be set as 6-4, 295-pound junior Ryan Custer should be more than ready to take over. After seeing three games of starting time as a freshman thanks to injuries, he ended up playing a key backup role in every game last year. Ultra-physical, the one-time defensive tackle prospect should be great for the running game.

The right side needs 6-5, 305-pound junior Drew Gardner to be ready. While all five starters have to be replaced up front, Gardner could be the X factor as he's the one with the least amount of experience. It'll help playing next to Eric Hensley.

Projected Top Reserves: The tackle situation should be set, but a couple of young prospects could make the rotation extremely interesting. 6-6, 305-pound redshirt freshman Kyle Fisher is a terrific athlete with the versatility to play any guard or tackle spot. A potentially dominant run blocker, he might be too athletic outside to move inside. He'll likely start out behind Welch at left tackle.

6-6, 305-pound redshirt freshman James Williams might not be the prospect Fisher is, but he's a big, hard-working prospect who could become a key starter in a year or two. He'll have time to groom and grow behind Hensley at right tackle and could also play on the other side if needed.

One of the other key prospects will be 6-3, 285-pound sophomore Ryan Vance, who isn't as big as Gardner, but is athletic enough and just good enough to push for the starting right guard job. He'll likely be the top backup early on.

Watch Out For ... the tackles. It hurts to lose two of the best tackles in recent team history, but Williams and Stamper won't be missed as much as many will believe if Welch and Hensley play as well as hoped.
Strength: Youth. While this might not seem like a plus, that there isn't a senior anywhere on the depth chart could turn into a positive as the season goes on. This is a group that should jell over the season and come out roaring in 2009. For this year, there's a surprising amount of experience considering ...
The new starters. Last year's line wasn't anything special for the running game, but it wasn't bad, and it was phenomenal in pass protection. It was among the league's most cohesive lines and one of the most productive, and while there's good potential on this year's front five, last year's group was a rock.
Outlook: Not only do all five starters need to be replaced, all five starters played every game last year. Even so, there's just enough experience among the newcomers, like tackles Welch and Hensley along with center Vierling and guard Custer, to grow into their new roles. It'll be next to impossible to replace the pass protection production of last year, but this is a big enough group to be decent for the running game early on. The depth isn't seasoned, but there's good talent, especially at tackle.
Rating: 6.5