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March 17, 2010
Vanderbilt went to a bowl game in 2008, and there was hope the program had turned the corner.
Alas, the Commodores regressed in '09, finishing 2-10 because of an offense that can kindly be termed "inept." Fixing that offense will be the top priority this spring.
Here's a look at Vandy as it prepares for spring practice.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH
Vandy has some good tailbacks, most notably Warren Norman, who also is a big-time kick returner. TE Brandon Barden and LB Chris Marve are among the best players in the SEC at their positions. The secondary has some potential, and Sean Richardson is a guy to watch.
HELP IS NEEDED
Even with good tailbacks, the offense was atrocious last season. QB Larry Smith will be battling for his starting job this season, and it would help his cause if a rebuilt offensive line -- all five starters could be new -- meshes quickly. That seems unlikely, though. The passing game needs a huge upgrade; the receivers seem to have talent, so it's on Smith -- or a new quarterback -- to get the ball to them. Vandy needs two new starters at linebacker, a pass-rushing end, a new free safety and a new cornerback to replace Myron Lewis -- who was one of last season's few bright spots.
THREE GUYS TO WATCH
FS Jay Fullam: Fullam would've seen the field as a true freshman reserve last season if not for a hand injury that caused him to redshirt. He heads into spring atop the depth chart. Fullam has a nice size (6-1/200) and speed mix, and he could become a needed defensive playmaker. His main competition is expected to be true freshman Kenny Ladler, who enrolled in January.
CB Jamie Graham: Graham is a great athlete who has played cornerback and wide receiver in both of his first two seasons. He seems settled in at cornerback now, and the Commodores hope he can put his high-level athleticism to use as a potential shutdown corner.
LB John Stokes: Stokes, a senior, has had injury problems in his career. However, he is coming off a season in which he had a career-high 44 tackles in a reserve role. With Vandy needing a new starting strongside linebacker, Stokes (6-5/232), a former touted recruit from Memphis, must stay healthy and show coaches he can handle the job. .
THE PRESSURE IS ON
QB Larry Smith: Our "three guys to watch" were defensive players. The reason? Unless Smith makes great strides this spring, the defense is going to be awfully busy this fall. Smith is a former Alabama "Mr. Football," but he struggled mightily as a sophomore last season -- his first as Vandy's starter. He missed the last three games with a hamstring injury. Smith is a good athlete with a strong arm, but he was wildly inconsistent last season. Forget possession to possession; you didn't know what you were going to get from Smith from play to play. Jordan Rodgers, a rare junior college transfer signed by Vanderbilt, will be Smith's No. 1 challenger. He is the brother of Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers.
It's hard to overstate how bad Vandy's offense was last season. The Commodores were 110th nationally in total offense, 112th in scoring offense, 112th in pass offense, 119th in time of possession and 109th in first downs gained. In an effort to rev up that unit, coach Bobby Johnson reshuffled his staff. Quarterbacks coach Jimmy Kiser also will be the coordinator, while former coordinator Ted Cain now is tight ends coach. Coaches have some talented running backs and receivers to work with, but work must be done with the quarterbacks and along the offensive line. The defense should be fine, but it risks being overworked again.
Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.