It didn’t take Jordan Rodgers long to diagnose the root of Vanderbilt’s offensive woes in a lopsided loss to South Carolina last year.
In fact, one didn’t have to sit in film session with the Vanderbilt quarterback to peg the problem. Just one glance at the box score does the trick: 25 carries for just four rushing yards.
“Really not establishing any kind of run game really just hurt us in being able to find lanes in the passing game,” Rodgers said on Monday at Vanderbilt’s first weekly press conference of the season. “We had some short completions but really our run game wasn’t where it needed to be that game and put us in a bind with play-calling and finding something that worked. That’s what is going to make us successful this season — establishing the run game.”
Rodgers, the offensive line and a slew of running backs will get another chance to burst through the Gamecocks’ defensive front in the season opener on Thursday (6 p.m., ESPN) at Vanderbilt Stadium.
Ninth-ranked South Carolina rolls in with a stout defense led by preseason All-American candidates Devin Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney. The defensive end duo combined for three of the team’s six sacks and Clowney, then a freshman, forced two fumbles.
“Sometimes guys would go to cut [Clowney] him and he would just hop right over them like he knew it was coming,” Rogers said.
Zac Stacy, who finished 2011 with a school-record 1,193 rushing yards, never got off the ground. He had just 18 yards on seven attempts in that game.
He’ll have more help this season with the addition of highly touted freshman Brian Kimbrow and the return of Warren Norman. Norman, the former SEC Freshman of the Year, missed all of last year with a knee injury. He spent much of the preseason camp taking reps behind Stacy but coach James Franklin says he is undetermined on how quickly they’ll load up Norman with carries.
“We’ll just kind of see,” Franklin said. “Right now, Zac Stacy is our guy. He’s our workhorse. We feel good about him. We have specific plays tagged for guys as well, especially like a Brian Kimbrow, a guy who it’s his first game, he’s a freshman. You don’t really ask him or require him to know the whole playbook. ‘Here are plays you’re comfortable with, Brian.’ Here are plays [offensive coordinator John] Donovan is comfortable calling with Brian in the game and you have them tagged.”
If the running game does take off, the Commodores will still need a better passing performance than last year.
The Gamecocks disrupted Vanderbilt everywhere, batting down passes and allowing just 77 total yards.
“They’re long on the outside so we’re going to have to do a good job upfront of keeping their hands down for our short passing game,” Rodgers said. “They bat down a lot of balls. That’s going to be a struggle for us to keep them out of the passing lanes. They’re real solid — they’re front seven, not only their front four. ... They’ve got high motors and they’re physical so it’s going to be a tough test.”
• Freshman debuts: A trio of true freshmen will play right away, Franklin said.
Along with Kimbrow, linebacker Darreon Herring and defensive end Caleb Azubike will shed their redshirts. While much hype has surrounded Kimbrow, the state’s top recruit out of Memphis, and Herring, who started taking classes in January, Franklin believes Azubike will make heads spin.
The 6-foot-4, 245-pounder made 117 tackles, including 30 for losses, and had 10 sacks last year as a senior at McGavock High.
“He’s impressive,” Franklin said. “Sometimes guys look the part and don't play the part, look like Tarzan and play like Jane. He looks like Tarzan and plays like Tarzan. I've been very happy with him.”
• Rainy night?: With Tropical Storm Isaac headed toward the Gulf Coast on Monday, the Middle Tennessee area could see remnants roll around by game time.
The forecast for Thursday night includes a 60 percent chance of rain with possible isolated storms.
“Conditions are always more worrisome in practice. You think about it more. When you’re out there in a game, you’re just playing,” Rodgers said. “If the ball is wet, the ball is wet. We’re going to do what we need to and we’ll be fine.”
• Nashville’s newest team: The 13 players and three coaches of Goodlettsville’s Little League All-Stars will be honored during Thursday’s game.
Over the weekend, the 11- and 12-year-olds captured the U.S. Championship and were the first Tennessee team in the Little League World Series since 1987.
“I’m a huge fan of Goodlettsville,” Franklin said. “I'm a little concerned because we've been fighting and selling for the fact that we're Nashville's team, and we've got some competition now. I'm very, very proud of them and what they accomplished.”