Spring is a time for offensive lines to establish roots of trust and continuity that they hope will allow them to stand up to the pass rush and blow open a few holes of their own in the run game come the fall.
That has not been the case for Vanderbilt, which has gone through the vast majority of spring workouts without the two players projected to be the starting tackles.
James Williams, last year’s right tackle before he sustained a broken ankle in the second game, has not participated because that injury has not healed. Ryan Seymour, the likely replacement for Thomas Welch on the left side, has been out with a shoulder injury, which required surgery, at the end of the first week of spring drills.
“That was bad for us that we didn’t have those two,” coach Bobby Johnson said. “We’d like to have a line that we can work in there and them have confidence in each other and us have confidence in them. Without those two, that was pretty hard to do.”
It was a particularly unwelcome development for the Commodores, who lost four starters – Welch, Eric Hensley, Bradley Vierling and Ryan Custer – and their most experienced and valuable reserve from 2009 – Reilly Lauer – to graduation.
The resultant struggles up front were evident Saturday in the team’s annual Black and Gold Scrimmage at Vanderbilt Stadium.
The offense scored only one touchdown, and that was with fifth quarterback Matt Casas working with the second offense against the third-team defense. The defense recorded five sacks, four tackles for losses and seven quarterback hurries.
“We have a good defense, and they did not have any limitations,” Johnson said. “They could run any blitz, any pressure. It’s hard to be consistent against our defense because they’re going to come after you.”
The offensive front took another blow during the scrimmage when backup center Chris Aaron sustained a blow to the head and was taken to Vanderbilt hospital. Trainers immobilized the fifth-year senior and cut off his facemask before they moved him from the playing surface.
“We got a report from the emergency room that he was communicating and moving,” Johnson said. “They’re always extremely cautious in those kinds of situations.”
Quarterback Jordan Rodgers, the only newcomer at that position, led all quarterbacks with four completions (on six attempts), and running back Zach Stacy averaged better than five yards on his four rushing attempts.
The offense also managed to covert a couple times early on third-and-short – both times with interior runs.
“We had two of our starting offensive linemen out most of the spring and another one went down (Saturday),” Rodgers said. “So guys are jumping into positions they’re maybe not totally comfortable with yet.
“Yeah, as a whole it’s going to start with the offensive line, but the offense is struggling in the passing game and a lot of other things. It’s not just the O-line. But the more reps these guys get at different positions, they’ll feel better.”
The Commodores have one more week of workouts before they exhaust their allotment of spring sessions. That’s three more practices for redshirt-freshman tackles Wesley Johnson and Mylon Brown – among others – to get work they would not have if the starters were healthy.
Still, it will be a long time – August to be exact – before Vanderbilt has the offensive line it expects. At that point, those players will have to work quickly to make up for the time lost in recent weeks.
“If we can get some continuity in the offensive line … sometimes our quarterbacks, I think, were almost anticipating pressure when it’s not there,” Johnson said. “Everybody has to get confidence in the offensive line, including the players.”
First, all the offensive linemen have to be in place – not on the sideline.