Vanderbilt’s offensive line has overhauled its identity to address depth issues. The unit has adopted a workmanlike attitude that stresses execution, regardless of the rotation.
Line coach Herb Hand is a devout believer of playing those who produce—whether it’s five men or 10.
“He told us when he first came that his first season at Tulsa he played with seven offensive linemen and that was it,” left tackle Wesley Johnson said. ”So we have the mentality that we’re going to go through the whole game, be able to go all four quarters.”
In Vanderbilt’s last game, a 28-14 road win over Ole Miss, Hand’s unit did just that. Six offensive linemen saw the field over the 26 minutes the Commodores had possession.
The results were 227 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns. Johnson was named SEC Offensive Linemen of the Week, and VU showed refurbished pass protection. They gave up six sacks in a Week 2 loss to LSU but only two outside of that game.
“The LSU game was kind of a wakeup call,” Johnson said. “It was our first SEC game and most of us weren’t ready for the speed. We got accustomed to it and we came out knowing what to expect against Ole Miss and we made sure we delivered.”
Sacks generally apply to pass protection, but Vanderbilt has established itself as a run-first offense over three games. Warren Norman and Zac Stacy might get on camera in the end zone after a 20-plus yard run, but the men in the trenches pay for rushing yards too, on every snap.
“We’d love to keep the ball more, drive it down, take more time off the clock for our defense,” left guard Kyle Fischer said. “But you know, it never hurts to have them pop one off—like the 80-yarder [Norman vs Ole Miss]—on the first play. It’s a testament to our coaching and our work ethic this summer.”
VU is averaging 161 rushing yards per game and has rushing touchdowns. That average bodes well against this week’s opponent, Connecticut (2-2).
The Huskies held Texas Southern, a Football Championship Subdivision team, to 18 yards rushing in a 62-3 win. But in games against FBS teams, UConn’s defense has allowed 207 yards rushing per game.
After sticking SEC rival Ole Miss for over 200 on the ground, VU wants to head into Big East territory and do the same.
“We’re coming off a bye week and people are healthy,” Fischer said. “The (running backs) were a big impact even playing hurt, but now that they’re healthy there are definitely four dangerous running backs back there.”
Vanderbilt will run the ball against Connecticut. The offensive line will be blocking, regardless of how many players get their number called.
• Tight End Brandon Barden seems fully recovered from his foot and ankle injuries. He practiced again on Tuesday. Coach Robbie Caldwell expects him to play Saturday against UConn.
• Norman, who rested last week, was participating fully in practice Tuesday. Norman had arthroscopic knee surgery Aug. 25 and sat out last week out of precaution.
• Caldwell said defensive tackles T.J. Greenstone and Adam Smotherman will be late-in-the-week decisions. Greenstone suffered a high ankle sprain in the first series against Ole Miss. Smotherman has been slowly recovering from a torn ACL suffered this spring.
Smotherman participated in some line drills Tuesday. After practice, he lined up against Fischer and hit, under the watch of head trainer Tom Bossung.
• Connecticut, preparing for its first SEC opponent this year, had two players arrested for fighting early Tuesday morning. Starting place kicker David Teggart and linebacker Jerome Williams got in a physical altercation with each other. Teggart is 7-for-11 kicking field goals this year.