Commodores are conditioned, experienced up front

Tuesday, August 18, 2009 at 6:08pm

Vanderbilt’s offense line has not necessarily taken shape. With seven returners who all started at least five games last season and one undeniable up-and-comer, there’s a lot for coaches to consider before the season opener Sept. 5 against Western Carolina.

One thing is for certain: the Commodores’ blockers never have been in better shape.

“I think every upperclassman had passed the (conditioning) test before the season started,” offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell said. “That may be a first for us ever.”

Strength and conditioning coach John Sisk could not confirm Caldwell’s assessment, but he did say that all of the offensive linemen passed the conditioning test roughly a month before the start of preseason practices. That meant they all ran 18 90-yard dashes in 15 seconds or better with just a 45-second break in between each.

Sisk had no doubt it was the earliest that particular position group had reached that point in their conditioning.

Likewise, it was clear what brought those big guys to that point. The offense’s plan to employ a no-huddle offense in 2009 put a premium on the offensive line’s ability to get to the line of scrimmage and get set for the next play.

“We're in the best shape this team has ever been in,” center Bradley Vierling said.

So while that unit was fit for the start of workouts on Aug. 7, it remains to be seen exactly which five are the best fit to comprise the starting unit.

The most common alignment thus far has been Thomas Welch at left tackle, Ryan Custer at left guard, Vierling at center, Eric Hensley at right guard and James Williams at right tackle. However, Reilly Lauer and Kyle Fischer each have gotten plenty of opportunity as well.

Vierling and Welch were the only two who started every game in 2009, but Welch’s 13 appearances all were at right tackle. Hensley started the final seven games at right guard. Lauer started 10 times – all at left tackle –Fischer started the final seven – three at left tackle and four at left guard – and Joey Bailey started the first five at right guard.

“We’re having fun up front,” Vierling, a fifth-year senior, said. “We’re older now. We know what’s going on. We can relax a lot more and go out there, have some fun and try to put some people in the dirt.”

In the midst of all of that experience Williams, a redshirt-sophomore, from Smyrna has come along to the point that he’s in position to start.

“He’s gotten bigger and stronger. He’s always been athletic. But now with the strength and the bulk and the knowledge of the system … James has done a real good job learning what we’re doing, and that’s a big key.”

Not only that, he got himself conditioned to play – as did everybody else on the line.

BRIEFLY

Senior defensive end Steven Stone will miss the start of the season due to a foot fracture he sustained during Monday evening’s workout.

“It was a pretty routine play,” Stone said. “… My attitude is that I’m going to stay positive. It could be a lot worse, and if something like this is going to happen this is the best time of year for it.”

Coach Bobby Johnson said it was a fracture of the fifth metatarsal and that it likely will take six weeks before Stone, who started every game the last two years, can return.

Sophomore Tim Fugger is in line to fill in for Stone.

• Wide receiver John Cole sprained an ankle Monday evening and was out Tuesday. It was his second injury already and it occurred just days after he returned from a hamstring strain, which cost him several workouts last week.

“We’re going to call him ‘Lucky,’” Johnson said.

• Quarterback Jared Funk participated but did not throw Tuesday because of a sore elbow.