VU ground game must improve

Friday, August 10, 2007 at 1:00am

Vanderbilt quarterback Chris Nickson takes pride in the fact that he led the team in rushing in 2006.

But it’s an honor he doesn’t want to carry again in 2007.

“That probably wouldn’t be the best thing,” Nickson said.

A week into preseason practice, the Commodores continue to attempt to establish a more effective rushing attack and one that will relieve pressure on Nickson.

VU coach Bobby Johnson laid it out in simple terms.

“Our running game needs to get better,” he said.

Vanderbilt believes that will happen, mainly due to the returns of senior offensive tackle Brian Stamper and junior tailback Jeff Jennings.

Stamper missed most of the 2006 season after undergoing back surgery. The former All-Southeastern Conference pick was granted a fifth season of eligibility by the NCAA and provides VU with a wealth of experience.

Jennings missed the entire 2006 season after sustaining major knee damage near the end of the 2005 season. Before the injury, he had established a reputation for being a hard-nosed runner who could absorb contact and still gain yardage.

“Those two things, having Jeff Jennings back and having Brian Stamper improve our offensive line, is really going to help us,” Johnson said. “That’s what we need to happen to be better and more consistent on offense.”

Vanderbilt still managed to finish fourth in the SEC last season in rushing yards per game at 149.6. Perhaps too much burden, however, was placed on Nickson, who gained 694 in his first season as a starter.

Nickson believes the return of Jennings, along with the presence of senior tailback Cassen Jackson-Garrison, will make his life easier.

“It means everything to know you have guys who can power out eight yards at any moment,” Nickson said. “It makes it a lot easier and takes a lot of pressure off you. I already feel at ease with it.

“I feel like it’s a great opportunity for me to show my talents more and showcase my talents more as a passer and not have to run the ball as much and not be as tired sometimes.”

The speedy Nickson, however, won’t be eliminated from the running game.

“It will depend on who we’re playing and the game plan we’re going to present,” he said. “I’ll do anything they ask me to do. If they want me to run the ball that week, I’ll do it. My legs are always going to be a part of my game.”

In addition, an improved ground game could help the Commodores become more efficient in red-zone scoring opportunities. They converted 67.4 percent last season (11th in the SEC) after posting an 88-percent clip two years ago.

That’s where Jennings might be most useful.

“Jeff is a big back. He’s 225 pounds,” Johnson said. “He can get those short-yardage things.”

Nickson said he’s had discussions with Jennings and Jackson-Garrison about the need for more rushing production.

“I told them they had to get at least 1,500 (yards) each,” Nickson said with a smile. “That’s my goal for them, but I was just kidding around.”

Then again, maybe he wasn’t.

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