October 31, 2010

Three questions: offense

The Vanderbilt Commodores dropped to 1-4 in the Southeastern Conference on Saturday with a 49-14 defeat at No.19 Arkansas. The Commodore offense scored a pair of touchdowns to open the game, marking the first time since 2008 in which the Commodores had scored two touchdowns in the first quarter against an SEC opponent. However, Vanderbilt gained just 28 total yards after the Commodores first two series and did not pick up a first down during the next 10 possessions of the game.

VandySports.com publisher's Chris Lee and Jesse Johnson answer this week's three questions about the Commodores offensive performance against Arkansas.

1. What did you make of Des Kitchings' debut as offensive coordinator?

Chris: The first two drives were just outstanding. Although Warren Norman picked up about 50 yards on his own on the first drive that had little to do with play-calling, at least they made a point to get him the ball. And I thought Larry Smith looked good in running the ball. He's an underrated option there.

The end-around to Jonathan Krause for the first touchdown was well-timed, and well-executed. It was a prime example of the staff taking something that's worked, and using it in a key spot. We need to see more of the ball in Krause's hands, for sure.

I don't know how much people noticed the particulars of the second touchdown from Smith to Brandon Barden, but is was a fantastically well-designed and well-executed play. The motion by the receiver on that side froze both the safety and the linebacker on that side long enough for Barden to weave between them and get open in the end zone.

And Smith's timing on the play was perfect, too. If he'd thrown it a tenth of a second later, or a foot more from where it was, it would have been knocked down.

So, give credit where it's due for all of that.

From there on, the staff started to out-think itself, as it has a habit of doing. I am not saying that VU was going to ring up enough points to out-score Arkansas, and I understand the sentiment behind showing different looks by bringing in Jared Funk. And even though Funk's pick was not his fault, it was just a terrible move from the get-go.

You saw VU do the same thing in the Music City Bowl of 2008. Smith was moving the team fantastically-well, and then, the staff brought in Chris Nickson once things got close.

Well, the whole complexion of the offense changed, and I wonder if the team was internally second-guessing the staff for the change. If I'm a player, I might have thought, 'Hey, we're moving the ball better than we have in months, and then this? Given the lack of success offensively, although the players haven't said it publicly and I am not claiming to know anything here, you have to wonder if the same thing were true on Saturday evening.

I understand that they'd game-planned that way, but at the same time, when you're achieving a level of success that you haven't had in a long, long time-even if it's for a short period-why go away from it? We see this with play-calling all the time, and on Saturday evening, we saw it with personnel.

From that point, the massacre was on. Smith was obviously holding the ball too long, and given that I watched it on TV (and not HD, at that), I don't know if the problem was him not finding receivers, or receivers not getting open.

But at that point, you have to have something designed to get the ball out of his hands quickly. I'm not sure that VU has called a quick receiver slant all year, which would be a good thing to have when this continues to be an issue. For that matter, why not a shovel pass? In fact, they don't use the middle of the field well at all, and Saturday was no exception.

Once the rout was on, Arkansas knew that VU's only chance was to make big plays with Stacy and Norman, and they played accordingly. If they hadn't gone to Funk on the third series, you can't help but wonder how the evening might have played out.

Jesse: Honestly, aside from the opening rhythm of the play-calling, I didn't see much difference between this week and last week when it came to the offense or even later play-calling. Now, I understand that some situations may have caused Kitchings to go away from some things he planned to do in the second or third quarters, but I still saw some head-scratching play-calls on first downs and it seemed like VU wasn't that dedicated to winning first downs as Kitchings said earlier in the week. If they were, those plays weren't winning enough.

The third possession change at quarterback seemed to indicate they wanted to pass the ball on that possession, as all three plays called for Funk to pass, but the timing of the substitution was highly questionable. Vanderbilt gained 125 yards and scored two touchdowns on the first two possessions with Smith at quarterback and it seemed like the unit had confidence. I don't mean to imply that the unit lacks confidence in Funk, it just seems to me why do you mess with something that seemed to be going right? Of course, I would point out that Vanderbilt's first two scores were aided by a 15-yard personal foul penalty after Warren Norman had a great individual run where he made a lot of yards out of nothing and the other drive was also set up by Norman on a solid kick return. So maybe the offensive success was a bit of "fool's gold". Still, Smith's decisions on the second drive, which ended with the touchdown to Barden, seemed to be on cue with what you want out of the quarterback position. Above all, it seemed like Smith was leading. Bringing in Funk may have been in the plans all week, but it just seemed highly questionable. It didn't help that a Funk pass bounced out of Barden's hands right into a Arkansas defender's grasp three plays after the staff made the call.

The performance of the unit from then on was just very poor, both statistically and momentum wise. It seemed like Vanderbilt didn't even have a chance to make a first down, especially not in the passing game. Smith suddenly had no time in the pocket and when he did, he seemed to show the same rush and anxiousness that he displayed during previous games against Georgia and South Carolina. Receivers didn't look to work that hard to get open either and any time Vanderbilt tried to run the ball, Arkansas had nine players snuffing out the play for minimal gain.

At the end of the day, Vanderbilt gained less yardage against Arkansas than any other team has this year, that's including local FCS team Tennessee Tech, coached by former Commodore Watson Brown, and Louisiana-Monroe. For that, you have to say that Kitchings debut and just the offense in general was extremely disappointing, despite the promising early start.

2. Is rotating quarterbacks the right thing to do?

Chris: No. This is not meant as a crusade against Jared Funk, but he simply hasn't shown much sustained ability in practice to be an SEC-level quarterback, though he has improved a lot this year. He also doesn't have the mobility of Larry Smith, and you pretty much have to have that given the line's inability to protect the passer.

Funk is also not going to be around next year, and at this point, VU has to be building for the future. Unless you're running the risk of getting Smith seriously hurt, getting him reps only helps the program in the long-term.

Now, I wouldn't have minded if Charlie Goro had gotten some snaps in a situation like that. In the few reps I've seen of him in practice, his arm and his stature may not be what you'd like ideally, but he seems to be decently accurate and mobile as well. If you're going to rotate, it would make more sense to use somebody who has eligibility beyond this season.

Back to Smith: a good number of people may disagree with me here, but a substantial portion of the offense's problems lie outside him. He's got a good arm, he's got mobility, he's got a better sense of how to manage the game this year than he did a year ago, he's just not getting a lot of help from teammates or coaches.

I'm not suggesting he's an all-world player waiting to break out. I see the mis-fires, the issues with getting rid of the ball, etc., that everyone else sees. But any quarterback is going to have some issues in those regards. And here's a stat: between 251 pass and rush attempts-a substantial number of which have ended with Smith's being absolutely pounded-he's thrown just four interceptions, and (if I recall correctly) fumbled just twice.

Jesse: No, I don't think rotating quarterbacks is a good move going forward, but I am starting to think maybe Vanderbilt should make a change at quarterback. In my opinion, Larry Smith may be the most talented and available quarterback that Vanderbilt has right now, but I've seen too much uncertainty from him during portions of the last three games and it's led to unbelievably dreadful offensive possessions.

I won't even waste people's time with how many three and outs Vanderbilt has experienced during the last three weeks because I know it surely out-numbers the total count of first downs the offense has picked up. While that is not all because of Smith's play, the fact that he doesn't seem to trust his offensive line right nor or his receivers makes me believe that maybe VU should sit him and try to see if Funk can manage the game.

I don't know if Funk could produce any better numbers or results but I find it alarming when the offense not only can't pick up first downs but you as a spectator have little hope that they will do so. Again, Smith is not the only reason this is happening but he looks so uncomfortable in the pocket right now and his passing is so off due to his footwork, that I feel Vanderbilt may need to go in another direction. Smith has shown better leadership since last year, so that does present a problem with this scenario, but Vanderbilt's game management both on the field and on the sidelines really seems to be in need of a change right now. There's only so many times you can keep trying to do the same thing and get low returns.

3. How's Logan Stewart working out at center?

Chris: Fans and coaches often use the word "good" so much that it has no meaning. A team can get beat by 40 points, and a coach will single out a dozen players as having "good" performances. Team performance is the sum of the individual players; in that case, if a bunch of players really were "good," then how bad would the other players have to be?

So, when coaches and fans talk about "good" performances in times like these, you really do have to take a closer look. And offensive linemen are even harder to evaluate, because 22 men are in motion at the snap of the ball, and writers, like most other people, watch the ball far more of the time than they do other things.

That out of the way, I made it a point to watch Stewart on several snaps last night, and I have to say, he held his own (or better) on just about all of them. There were no snap issues that I remember, and as I mentioned last week, some of the South Carolina writers made a point to watch him and liked what they saw as well.

It's probably as hard to play offensive line as a freshman in the SEC as it is anywhere else on the field. But Stewart is making a difference, and for a program that has to be building a future, continuing to roll him out there is the right thing to do.

Jesse: I didn't exclusively watch Stewart on Saturday but I do notice less problems with the interior of the offensive line, so it would seem that he's doing his job well. There was one botched snap when Funk first came into the game, but that was it, so he appears to be doing fine from that aspect as well.

It is a little concerning that Vanderbilt's tackles struggled so much with the outside rush however. The also struggled with run blocking on the edges and even in the few times Vanderbilt attempted a screen. Arkansas having more defenders than Vanderbilt had blockers could've had something to do with that, but the last thing the Commodores need right now is for it's tackles to regress.

As far as Stewart goes though, yes, it seems like he's doing a good job.

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