Monday, August 17

Vanderbilt Commodores '09: When the revolution continues

The 2008 Season in a Box
Last season was like getting a nice DVR from your grandmother. You know, the one that’s given you socks every year for the last eternity. Maybe she’s wised up and knows you don’t need 750 pairs of socks that have jack-eyed Santa, but let’s be honest here: she’s 93 and probably thinks you’re a walking chicken at this point. I wouldn’t expect a repeat, and grandma probably isn’t going to get better anytime soon, either.

On the other hand, grandma didn’t start rolling around in shit like Vanderbilt did during the second half of the season. Vandy spent most of the second half of the season taking it in the ass from karma after opening up 5-0, including two equally improbable wins over Ole Miss and South Carolina. (That Ole Miss win in particular was a brilliant “wtf?” moment come January.) Considering the ‘Dores lost nearly a yard per play on the offense-defense spectrum (4.2 offensive ypp compared to 4.9 ypp defensive), it should be pretty clear that Vanderbilt did this on a lot of luck and fortunately timed turnovers. Shockingly, their yards per point weren’t completely out of the realm of reasonability on either offense or defense. They also had one of the best field goal defenses in the country last year, which is a small enough sample size that I feel pretty good labeling as a non-repeatable skill.

Why Should This Season Be Any Different?
Well, aside from the regression of luck? There’s not a huge change; incoming / likely QB Larry Smith is rumored to be halfway decent, but that’s no guarantee and backup QB Mackenzi Adams is still waiting in the wings for when things inevitably go to hell. Still, Vanderbilt really hasn’t lost anyone they’d care about going forward (Chris Nickson never really lived up to his promise) on offense. On defense, losing Reshard Langford and DJ Moore will hurt but everyone else returns.

Still, at the end it comes down to a regression of luck; they’re probably not going to win 6 games by less than a TD next year, and that’s not a problem unless you like the idea of winning games.

On Offense
Remember what I was saying about Larry Smith? If you don’t, get your memory checked; it’s not like I wrote that much about him, and it wasn’t that far ago. Smith was the first QB to really look capable under or behind center since – gasp! – Jay Cutler, and god only knows how far back you’d have to go to find someone else who actually looked good enough for you to consider taking back home to momma. Truth be told, I don’t know enough about Smith to say whether or not he’d be any good, but he’ll get handed the reins as a sophomore so he can’t be too bad, right? We’ll just peg him for “Crompton-plus” and figure out the details later; he feels like a caretaker-type QB who’s going to be asked to lead a mostly-inept offense. If he struggles, Mackenzi Adams will come under center yet again. He’s a prognosticator’s dream; he has a pretty well established tradition of sucking donkey balls, and is one of the only QBs I can remember with a sub-50% completion percentage who isn’t a “dual threat” (read: running QB who can’t throw for shit) – Adams isn’t a Weeblie either, but he’s certainly not someone who can beat you with his legs. Or his arm.

On the plus side, Smith really has nobody to throw it to. Okay, so maybe that’s not “plus”, but it isn’t surprising. Leading receiver Sean Walker is gone, leaving TE(!) Brandon Barden as the leader returning receiver; lest you get excited about that, he only had 209 yards on the season and may split catches with backup TE Austin Monahan. I mean, it’s creative certainly and it’s probably good from a schematic standpoint, but there’s more than a bit of cannibalizing something that isn’t even there to begin with. Shockingly, most of the returning & starting WRs are young; and returning starter Udon Umoh is not only a sophomore, but is awesome only because of his name. Other guys that’ll be pulling down catches include Terence Jeffers (junior), John Cole (freshman, redshirt), Tray Herndon (sophomore), and Akeen Dunham (freshman, redshirt). Justin Wheeler is recovering from a torn ACL in spring ball; based on that I’d be surprised if he’s useful this season. However, don’t expect that just because these guys are young they’re all talented; Cole may be the most talented of the lot, but these guys weren’t exactly burning up Rivals. It’s a fair bet to assume at least one of these guys will have a season approaching the 6th guy on Texas Tech’s reception total, but more than that is going to be an exercise in futility.

I was all set for a string of Cassen Jackson-Garrison jokes regarding Vandy’s RB situation, but ….well, he graduated two years ago, not even last year. So much for that idea. On the other hand, it does show how replaceable the RB position has been for Vanderbilt lately; not only do you probably not know Jared Hawkins led the team last year with nearly 600 yards, but you probably also didn’t know he got forced into the starting role after previous starting RB Jeff Jennings got injured. Hawkins isn’t bad, and Vanderbilt’s ypc numbers aren’t awful at 3.7 ypc, but they’re certainly not good, and Hawkins isn’t good enough to break the mold that’s been set for the last ten-plus years. Aside from him, the other RBs are strictly of the organizational depth variety; this will probably be the only non-Vanderbilt affiliated site you’ll read the names Kennard Reeves or Gaston Miller before next season, so treasure this moment. The rushing game should get a boost from an offensive line that returns all its starters – quite a jump from last year’s 3 returning starts. Of course, that doesn’t mean these guys are super-experienced, but any step is a step up from greenhorn.

I would love to speak more about what kind of schemes Bobby Johnson uses, but quite frankly I have no idea. Most of the writing about him is of the “he’s a good coach, underrated, in a tough conference” variety and not of the “this is what he runs” variety. This happens when you coach Vanderbilt and your offense hasn’t done anything in ages. Based on this, I assume that Vanderbilt runs some pro-type hybrid derivative; there’s no incentive for them to run any spread-type offense, both because that’s kind of hit its peak and Vanderbilt has no incentive to go playmaker vs. playmaker in the SEC. As such, they’ll generally keep it conservative and win where they can; it’s not pretty but you don’t win titles in Nashville by being pretty.

On Defense / Special Teams
Let’s start with the bad news: Vanderbilt loses two of their best players from the secondary in DJ Moore (4th-round pick by Chicago) and Reshard Johnson. On the plus side, these are the only guys Vanderbilt loses. The defense has a rough patch to hoe; the offense relies on these guys to help keep it close, but if they can’t keep the other team under or around 20 points this team is going to struggle. Fortunately, last year the defense said “fuck this” to the offense’s inability to score and chipped in a few pick-sixes and a fumble return to make the final margins not look god-awful. There’s no guarantee this will happen again – my gut feeling is these things regress pretty heavily from year to year (except at the margins, which is Eric Berry’s territory), so while the defense may turn in one, expecting two would be a bit much to ask. If that happens, smart money is on either FS Ryan Hamilton or CB Myron Lewis – who, not coincidentally, also have the only returning interceptions on the team.

Aside from the secondary – which should still be solid – you probably haven’t heard of anyone on the Vanderbilt defense. DE Steven Stone is the team’s leading sack artist, and with him and seven of his closest D-lineman friends returning to don the black and gold Vanderbilt will shockingly be competent in the trenches for the first time in a while. This is a bigger deal than it sounds; often mid-major teams have skill players on par with most major-conference teams, but it falls apart at the offensive and defensive lines. (Among other reasons, this made Utah’s win over Alabama especially remarkable – nobody expected Utah’s front seven to have their way with the vacated corpse of Andre Smith’s college career.) If Vanderbilt can hang with some of the middling teams in-conference, the lines will be the reason why. I don’t expect this line to do anything with the powerhouses in-conference – don’t expect miracles – but with improvement measured in baby steps, this is at least 4 or 5 baby steps.

Special teams should be solidly underwhelming. P Brett Upson is their best guy associated with this crew, and they’re breaking in a freshman at kicker in Ryan Fowler; of course, what that probably means is Upson gets to pull double duty after Fowler shanks a big kick. (Or at least as big as kicks get at Vanderbilt.) The return game will be a who-the-hell-knows affair, since nearly everyone who returned anything is gone save Jamie Graham. Still, since nobody really did anything of note last year it’ll probably be the same this time around.

So What’s Their Bowl Game?
I’m going to play it conservative and go with non-existent. As awkwardly awesome as Vanderbilt’s first-half run was last year, they’re still 2-6 over their last 8, which is very much within Commodore history and tradition. I don’t think this is a 3-9 outfit; far from it, I think this team is similar to last year’s, maybe even slightly better. The problem is last year’s team should’ve gone 5-7; I can’t see this year’s version doing better than that.