Team preview: Vanderbilt

Blue Ribbon Yearbook previews the 2005 college football season, exclusively on Insider.

Originally Published: July 31, 2005
Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook
Editor's Note: ESPN Insider has teamed with Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook to provide a comprehensive look at all 119 Division I-A teams. To order the complete 2005 edition of Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, visit www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).

(All information as of July 1, 2005)

COACH AND PROGRAM

Losing games -- yes, Vanderbilt has done that in spades. Four straight two-win seasons hang like an albatross around the Commodores' neck. The program trudges on.

Losing underclassmen to professional aspirations -- although far less frequently, Vanderbilt has suffered that as well. The names that left -- Jovan Haye, Matthew Tant, Dominique Morris -- were not household, but they left anyway. The program trudges on.

Losing forever a tailback, a teammate, a friend -- sadly, the Commodores navigated through that last winter, when Kwane Doster was shot and killed in his hometown of Tampa, Fla., early on the day after Christmas.

Where will Vandy trudge after all of this is heaped upon a school that hasn't been to a bowl or finished above .500 in SEC play since 1982? Head coach Bobby Johnson has one blunt answer -- forward.

"I don't think [Doster's death] is a rallying point, where anybody's trying to take advantage of a tragedy to get us to play better," he said. "I don't think that was the focus of it at all.

"I think it was an appreciation of what Kwane did for us and an appreciation for learning that you never know what's in store for you."

All the galactic tumblers were supposed to click into place for VU last season. At least 10 starters on each side of the ball were back from the previous year. Optimists upheld the law of averages, figuring all that experience would constitute a run at a bowl. Cynics calculated that 2-10 projects to 2-10 with the same personnel.

The latter group's theory prevailed (the Commodores were 2-9 to be precise), although not by a sweeping majority. The Commodores lost five games by a total of 15 points. They led Kentucky and Ole Miss by 13 in the second half, only to gag away both road games. Most insidious was a 24-point, third-quarter cushion against Rutgers that mysteriously dissolved into a 37-34 home defeat.

In the season finale against Tennessee, Vanderbilt's virtual landlord since 1982, the 'Dores frantically charged back from a 28-6 hole to pull within five with less than a minute to play. Naturally, an interception on the first play from scrimmage serenaded Vandy into the off-season with a 38-33 loss to the SEC East champs. "There were a lot of 'what ifs' this season,'' Johnson said afterward.

The 2005 season hasn't even begun, but a flock of 'what-ifs' are already pecking at Vandy's prognosis. What if Haye (a sixth-round pick by the Carolina Panthers), Tant and Morris (both un-drafted) had stuck around? For that matter, what if quarterback Jay Cutler had passed on his fourth year as a starter and opted for the pros?

And most wrenching of all, what if Doster, Vandy's top returning rusher, hadn't been caught in the crossfire of an argument about cars at a Tampa intersection?

Subsequently, there is no bowl talk on the eve of Johnson's fourth season at Vanderbilt. Beyond the early departures, the Commodores lost significant contributors in the offensive line and both backfields. Cutler is back at the controls, but his wide-receiving corps is thin. The kicking game, nightmarish the last two seasons, may not get any better.

Even if signs of hope surface during an unusual five-game home stand from mid-September to mid-October, they may be apparent to no one but the true believers. Last season, the Commodores never came close to selling out the smallest stadium in the SEC, drawing a peak of 33,670 fans to the South Carolina massacre. If Vandy doesn't perform well at either Wake Forest or Arkansas to start 2005, program apathy might hit rock bottom, if it hasn't already.

QUARTERBACKS

Last January, long after Vanderbilt's season ended, Jay Cutler (6-4, 225) dropped back in the pocket one more time, surveyed his options -- and stayed.

"There were a lot of different opinions, but I really believe this is the best one," Cutler said at the press conference announcing his decision to return to the Commodores for his senior year. "It's definitely in the best interests of myself and this team to return for my final year."

With that, VU coaches and followers could exhale again. Cutler, a native of Santa Claus, Ind., is basically the only starting quarterback Johnson has had at Vanderbilt.

Cutler has steadily increased his completion percentage in each of his three seasons, from 48.6 in 2002 to 61.0 last fall. Only three other Vandy quarterbacks in the last 50 years can boast a 60-plus completion rate.

More importantly, Cutler's interceptions dropped from 13 in 2003 to just five in 2004. His decision-making in the pocket improved exponentially, not only in choosing the right receiver but also knowing when to tuck and run.

Barring injury, Cutler could become Vanderbilt's all-time leading offensive producer (his 6,665 total yards ranks third) as well as the school's most prolific passer.

"We feel like we can make better use of his talents," Johnson said. "We'll probably throw the ball a little bit more and take advantage of the fact that he can throw it.

"We probably won't run as much option with him, to see if we can protect him a little better."

One caveat to Cutler's comeback -- he must present a less-inviting target to oncoming rushers. Vandy quarterbacks -- mostly Cutler -- absorbed 33 sacks in 2004, tied with LSU for most in the SEC. Granted, VU's offensive line was ransacked by defections and academic casualties, but Cutler could stand to improve recognition of what's bearing down on him.

"It's mostly the mental part of it with Jay, not that he didn't have a grasp on it anyway," Johnson said. "It's refining it a little bit -- every protection we have, what he's got to do in case somebody's blitzing. It's all a refinement of some minor points you've got to have to be that wily veteran."

Steven Bright (6-3, 235) has backed up Cutler in each of the last two seasons, but the junior may not resume that role in 2005. The coaching staff moved Bright to fullback or H-back in the last three days of spring practice. Two motives were at work. One, Bright, a burly but nifty runner who compiled 121 rushing yards last year, is too potent to be sidelined interminably.

Also, red-shirt sophomore Chris Nickson (6-1, 210) showed enough progress in his second spring to earn a shot at the No. 2. Nickson has much to improve in the accuracy department, but he's nimble and quick in the mold of a Ronnie Gordon or Marcus Wilson from Vandy's past.

"It's important to get Steven on the field somewhere. And if that's the case, Chris has to make himself reliable and be able to take care of that No. 2 job," Johnson said. "If something were to happen to Jay early in the season, we'd have to rethink that whole thing."

RUNNING BACKS

Shrouded in the needless loss of Doster was the graduation of Norval McKenzie, a dependable edge runner who netted 446 yards as the senior half of Vandy's tailback tandem.

Those two had been 1 and 1A for the better part of three years. Now the Commodores hope to christen another durable duo -- sophomores Cassen Jackson-Garrison (6-1, 210) and Jeff Jennings (6-1, 228).

Both share more than an East Tennessee heritage (Jackson-Garrison grew up in Knoxville; Jennings in Dandridge) and contiguous jersey numbers (Jennings is No. 21; Jackson-Garrison, No. 22). They are both more powerfully built than the McKenzie-Doster duet, which may channel VU's rushing game between the tackles more often in 2005.

"It's a little bit of a change for us from what we've been doing," Johnson said.

Jennings has the experience edge on Jackson-Garrison, having rushed 46 times for 135 yards and five touchdowns last fall. Goal-line situations were Jennings' forte, and he received more carries as the year neared a close.

Jackson-Garrison was technically a fullback in 2004, but he has more loosey-goosey than Jennings. Although he rushed just 13 times, Jackson-Garrison posted a team-high 5.2 yards per dash.

"Cassen's probably a little faster, probably a little bit more explosive as far as big plays," Johnson said. "But Jeff is very strong and reads his blocks well.

"Surely there's enough carries to go around for everybody. We're going to need both of them."

The experiment of Bright at fullback was in part precipitated by Tant's decision to pass on his final year of eligibility. Tant was a mean blocker and adept emergency-valve in the passing game. Vandy also lost Clark Lea to graduation.

If Bright's services are required at quarterback, look for either junior Ron Bullock (5-11, 225) or sophomore David Whittington (6-2, 244) to fill in at fullback. Bullock had six token carries two years ago, when the Commodores were decimated by injuries, but did not see the field last fall. Whittington, a red-shirt freshman, is also new to the task at hand.

Unless there's a surprise tucked away in the incoming freshman class, Jennings and Jackson-Garrison are going to shoulder a huge responsibility -- keeping Vandy from living and dying on Cutler's arm.

"We've got to be balanced," Johnson said. "If we're one-dimensional, people will find a way to take that away from you."

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

If the Commodores favor deuces at tailback, they love triplets at wideout. At issue for 2005 is who will be number three.

Brandon Smith, Erik Davis (6-2, 190) and Marlon White (6-4, 205) were very clearly marked as Cutler's catchers last season. That troika accounted for 107 of the Commodores' 169 receptions. Eight of Cutler's 10 touchdown passes went to one of those three.

Smith, however, has graduated, and while Davis and White are back, Vanderbilt is definitely searching for a Plan C.

"We're looking for a third guy, to tell you the truth," Johnson said. "It's going to be a pretty good battle."

First, the constants: Davis, a senior and Nashville native who ranked ninth in the SEC with 37 catches in 2004, is a rangy speedster when he catches the ones he's supposed to. Now that Smith has moved on, Davis is the most physical Commodore receiver.

White, a junior, has a couple of inches on Davis, but he's a tad more questionable over the middle. He made waves as a Freshman All-SEC selection by the coaches two years ago, and built on that with 29 catches and a team-best 15.8 yards-per-reception average as a sophomore. White's personal highlight of 2004 was his theft of a tipped ball intended for Smith and subsequent 62-yard scamper to set up a score during Vandy's loss to Tennessee.

If sophomore George Smith (6-3, 195) emerges as the third wideout, Hollywood will be knocking on the McGugin Center doors. During spring break of 2004, Smith contracted acute transverse myelitis, a neurological disorder that left him temporarily paralyzed. Over the course of a medical red-shirt year, he slowly regained strength until he was finally cleared for contact last spring. Smith has excellent hands and speed.

"George ought to be the guy to take it," Johnson said, "but Sean will push him."

That's Sean Walker (6-0, 185), a red-shirt freshman who could stand to gain a few pounds but runs nice routes. Other returnees with a shot at the third rail are senior Jason Caldwell (6-0, 202), red-shirt freshman Bryant Anderson (6-3, 202), converted quarterback Jason Burns (6-1, 185), a senior or senior ex-safety Ronnie Swoopes (6-2, 208).

It would not shock to see a freshman sprint his way into the depth chart here. Johnson says immediate help, embodied by Earl Bennett (5-11, 195) or perhaps Larry Simmons (5-10, 170), might arrive in August.

At tight end, senior Dustin Dunning (6-5, 250) and red-shirt freshman Brad Allen (6-4, 235) are clearly 1-2, especially after Jonathan Loyte announced he was transferring to Boston College. Dunning caught 14 passes for 143 yards and a touchdown in '04. Allen was the highest-ranked recruit from Johnson's signing class of 2004 and had an impressive spring.

Election to the Senate. Stampeded by elephants. "Disappeared" by the mob. Vanderbilt didn't lose offensive linemen by any of those means last year, but just about anything else imaginable turned this unit into the cast of The 4400.

Tom Sorensen, a projected starter at center, decided to dash off for his two-year Mormon mission in the spring of '04. Sorensen's replacement, Steven Brent, was booted from the team for academic problems.

Chris Williams (6-6, 307) looked like the center that would hold, but he too became academically ineligible. Another center, Adam Dossett, never recovered from an injured knee. He eventually called it a career before he ever played a down.

Right tackle Kenan Arkan lost 90 percent of his senior year with a bad ankle. Then senior Mac Pyle (6-4, 312) quit the team halfway through last season for personal reasons.

Paducah, Ky., is the only place you'd find a bigger patchwork quilt than Vanderbilt's offensive line, and that was before stud left tackle Justin Geisinger was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the sixth round of the NFL draft.

So what inspires Johnson to say, "Maybe the top level [of our offensive linemen] is not as high as Justin, but the average is a lot better than what we've had here?"

Like The 4400, the Commodores got back some of their own. Pyle has taken care of business and is ready to anchor the right-guard spot. With fingers crossed, Williams has bounced back in the classroom and will compete with senior Ryan King (6-7, 314) to fill Geisinger's shoes.

Moreover, Vanderbilt retains the services of senior Trey Holloway (6-2, 293), a former defensive tackle who aptly switched over to center in the summer of '04.

Sophomore right tackle Brian Stamper (6-5, 292) returns after starting all 11 games, and sophomore Hamilton Holliday (6-4, 290) and senior Nigel Seaman (6-5, 315) were plugged in to Pyle's vacancy. Suddenly, the Commodore line looks more cohesive than it has in years past.

"We probably have a little more depth than we've had, but none of the stars like Justin Geisinger or anybody like that," Johnson said.

Next to Geisinger on the front was unheralded left guard Brian Kovolisky, who also exhausted his eligibility. Kovolisky, Holloway and Stamper were the only linemen to start every game last year, so Kovolisky's replacement -- the best bet is sophomore Josh Eames (6-5, 304), with classmate Merritt Kirchoffer (6-5, 315) close behind -- has plenty to live up to.

Two years ago, the Commodores made a concerted recruiting effort to restock the line. The time is now for that class, including Williams, Eames, Kirchoffer and sophomore freshman Elliott Hood (6-5, 285) to solidify a turbulent unit.

KICKERS

For the first half of 2004, Vanderbilt appeared to have finally subdued a persistent demon entrenched in special teams ever since Greg Johnson transferred to Texas in 2003.

Junior Patrick Johnson (5-11, 180) was true on six of his first nine field- goal attempts last year, including 44-yarders against Navy and Rutgers.

"If he'd done that all year, we'd be celebrating him," Bobby Johnson said. However, the rest of the season would bury Patrick Johnson instead. He missed a meaningless 34-yarder in VU's 33-3 dismantling at Georgia, and the Alabama native never recovered his confidence. He connected on just one of five attempts the rest of the way.

More alarming, Johnson yanked a 21-yarder and an extra point against Kentucky, either of which could have drastically altered an eventual 14-13 loss. When he blew two more extra points against Tennessee, Bobby Johnson rushed in kickoff specialist Abtin Iranmanesh for that duty when the Commodores scored late in a 38-33 defeat.

"He just lost his confidence," coach Johnson said.

Dutifully, Patrick Johnson returns to try to regain the trust of teammates and fans alike, but he'll have competition from red-shirt freshman Daniel Lee (5-10, 180)

Meanwhile Iranmanesh has moved on, leaving the kickoff duty open for employment. Walk-on Bill Robertson (6-1, 200), a junior, and true freshman Bryant Hahnfeldt (5-10, 175), a Nashville native, are potential candidates.

DEFENSIVE LINE

With many apologies to Erich Maria Remarque, it's been all quiet on the West End front for far too long for Vandy's defense.

Every year of Johnson's tenure, the theme resonates -- the defensive front has to produce more big plays. Still, the Commodores are waiting for results. Last season, Vandy sacked the opposing quarterback just 13 times, one more than the dozen South Carolina posted as the least in the league. Just five of those 13 sacks came from the line -- Haye, the Carolina draftee, had only one.

Moreover, the Commodores again struggled against the run, surrendering 194.5 yards per game and 20 touchdowns. Only Rutgers failed to rush for more than 100 yards against VU last season -- and the Scarlet Knights threw for 344 yards against the summer breeze of the Commodores' pass rush. In response, the staff has boosted the speed on the edges, moving senior Herdley Harrison (6-3, 245) from weak side linebacker to defensive end. In his second full season as a starter, Harrison led the team in sacks (three) and quarterback hurries (four) in 2004.

"We were very happy with the way Herdley embraced the change and how hard he worked," Johnson said.

At the other end, if good fortune prevails, will be senior Chris Booker (6-4, 245). Booker lost all of last year to surgery for a knee injury, his second such affliction in three years. In 2003, the Brandon, Miss., native had started nine times and produced 30 tackles. Booker had impressed the VU coaching staff with a non-stop motor even as a freshman; will the engine be clean in 2005?

"His legs are in pretty good shape," Johnson said. "He needs to gain a little weight and get a little stronger. But he's very experienced and it was good to have him back.

"Having Herdley and Chris in there makes us faster at defensive end than we were last year."

In reserve, sophomore David Carter (6-4, 254) is the only true end with experience, after persistent back problems prompted Richard Freeman to end his football days. The staff worked out sophomore Curtis Gatewood (6-3, 220) a little at end last fall, but he'll likely stick with his natural linebacking position this year. That means true freshmen Broderick Stewart (6-4, 210), Derrius Dowell (6-3, 245) and Steven Stone (6-5, 225) have ample opportunity to ply their trade right away.

On the interior, the Commodores graduated Matt Clay and Robert Dinwiddie but bring back senior Ralph McKenzie (6-4, 305) and junior Ray Brown (6-3, 295), each of whom saw major minutes last season. McKenzie posted two sacks and 20 tackles while playing all 11 games, and Brown had 12 stops in 10 games. Despite a shoulder ailment, Brown stood out in the spring.

Only Outkast gets heavier rotation than defensive tackles in Vandy's system, so a trio of sophomores will be accompanying McKenzie and Brown. Sophomore Lamar Divens (6-4, 300) was nimble enough to play end in 2004, but the coaches like him inside this fall. Divens started against Ole Miss, Kentucky and Tennessee and has all the tools to be a dominant lineman.

Divens' high school teammate at Lincoln County (Tenn.), sophomore Theo Horrocks (6-3, 275) also saw most of his playing time at end last year. He posted a season-best six tackles against Florida.

Gabe Hall (6-1, 295), a sophomore, nicked the tackle rotation as a freshman last year, playing in five games. Improved footwork and strength could earn him more time.

"We're going to play a bunch of those guys," Johnson said. "We always have."

LINEBACKERS

Wrap this riddle around a paradox, if you will -- the second-worst scoring defense in the SEC couldn't squeeze all of its playmakers at linebacker on the field at the same time last year.

Only a hefty crowbar -- or a serious injury -- was going to dislodge leading tackler Moses Osemwegie (6-0, 228), a senior, from the strong side. Harrison was the Commodores' best pass rush threat at the weak side. Jonathan Goff (6-4, 235) had supplanted senior Otis Washington (5-11, 247) as the starter in the middle midway through the season.

That left junior Kevin Joyce (6-3, 212) as a man without a front-line mission, even as he ranked fifth on the team with 57 tackles by tearing it up alongside Osemwegie in nickel situations.

In 2005, Joyce's persistence will be rewarded. With Harrison swinging over to defensive end, Joyce will move to the weak side and projects to start next to Osemwegie and Goff in the strongest single unit Vandy may have.

"He can run and he's a pretty good blitzer," Johnson said of Joyce. "A lot of times we use that Sam linebacker to get in there."

It's weird to imagine the 6-3 Joyce escaping the shadow of Osemwegie, who barely measures six feet, but Osemwegie is the new measuring rod in Vanderbilt's storied linebacker heritage. A watch-list performer for the Lott Trophy and the Rotary Lombardi Award, Osemwegie was a first-team All-SEC selection by the coaches and AP after notching 94 tackles (66 solo) and six tackles for loss. He is Vandy's surest tackler.

Goff, a studious 19-year-old who eclipsed Washington in the starting lineup at LSU in 2004, has always had the physical tools. Now the quiet sophomore has to be a vocal presence full-time in the middle. Goff had 38 stops in 2004, including nine against Kentucky.

Washington's lack of speed finally caught up to him, so to speak, but he is the heftiest linebacker in an otherwise smallish unit. The senior from Saginaw, Mich., had 46 tackles, but none for a loss, in 2004.

Gatewood is fast enough to back up either Osemwegie or Joyce on the outside, while sophomore Marcus Buggs (5-11, 228) moves from safety to linebacker after seeing sporadic action last fall.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Dominique Morris's surprising early departure for a shot at the pros left the Commodores without a returning starter at cornerback; the other veteran, Bill Alford, burned up his eligibility.

So, VU bumped senior Andrew Pace (6-0, 200) from his customary free safety spot and planted him in Morris's old position.

"We're trying to get a very reliable player over there at the boundary corner," Johnson said. "Andrew's bigger than most people think; he's over 200 pounds and he can be physical over there at the boundary."

Pace ranked third on the team in tackles with 60 in 2004, but he had some problems making stops in the open field. A three-year starter in the defensive backfield, Pace is smart enough to hold down either corner or safety. He won't dazzle anyone with his speed, so physicality will be his calling card.

At the other corner, junior Sean Dixon (6-0, 186) will finally get a full-time look after two seasons of limited action. Dixon started once in 2004, against Eastern Kentucky, and notched 16 tackles on the year.

If either Pace or Dixon doesn't pan out, senior Cheron Thompson (5-10, 188) is an experienced safety net. Thompson played through much of 2003 with a torn ligament in his knee and tallied 22 tackles as primarily a nickel back last fall. Beyond Thompson, red-shirt freshmen Josh Allen (5-9, 172) and Jared Fagan (5-9, 172) have speed but no experience.

By moving Pace to corner, Vanderbilt also paved a throughway for Reshard Langford (6-1, 212) to shine at free safety. It was all the staff could do to keep the red-shirt on Langford last year; now the athletic Alabama native is poised to bolster the backline.

"He's going to be a good player," Johnson said.

Senior Kelechi Ohanaja (6-1, 192), the squad's second-leading tackler last fall, will have to fend off junior Ben Koger (6-1, 196) if he desires a third consecutive season as Vandy's starting strong safety. Ohanaja had 50 solo tackles last year, second only to Osemwegie.

Junior Funtaine Hunter (6-3, 218) is now a safety candidate after two seasons as a reserve linebacker, although a stress fracture kept him out of the spring.

Inexperience and almost no depth may spell trouble in 2005, but Johnson was enamored of the early returns in this reconstituted unit. "In my opinion, we were much more reliable in the secondary than the spring before last, the coach said. "Better work habits."

PUNTERS

Iranmanesh also took care of punting duties last fall, averaging 38.2 yards a boot. His specialty was placement; he landed 12-of-43 punts inside the 20. The responsibility now falls to sophomore Kyle Keown (6-0, 200), who posted a 37.1-yard average on 11 tries while Iranmanesh was injured a year ago.

"He's not going to be a 46-yarder or a 45-yard-average guy," Johnson said. "But he's right around 40 and he gets it off quickly and he's fairly consistent."

Again, Johnson is not reluctant to audition all comers for the kicking positions, so Keown could be uprooted by freshman Hahnfeldt or a walk-on to be named later.

SPECIAL TEAMS

No one who returned a kick last fall is back with the Commodores, including Doster as the primary kickoff man. Wideout Davis will probably replace Morris at punt returner; Davis practiced a ton at the position last fall but was never called upon to take over.

Doster's void is more difficult to fill. As a freshman, he set an SEC record with 243 kickoff return yards against Ole Miss and established a school record by averaging 25.7 yards per return. Doster never posted such lofty numbers the next two seasons, but he was always a threat to break one.

Now, Vandy will look at Allen, Walker or perhaps a freshman like Justin Wheeler (6-2, 190) or Bennett to step in.

Better news exists at long snapper, where senior Paul Meadows (6-2, 242) is back for his second full season. Bright will again hold for place-kicks.

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 119 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college football, the 2005 Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).