After a long struggle, Vanderbilt offensive tackle Brian Stamper is playing his best football of the season.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the entire Commodore offensive line is following suit.
Stamper’s approach to his old form, a year after undergoing back surgery, has run parallel to Vanderbilt’s renewed effectiveness in running the ball.
Winners of two straight games, the 5-3 Commodores are a victory away from being bowl eligible. To get there, they might continue to rely on their rushing attack.
Last week, VU rushed for 290 yards, its most in a game in five years, in a 24-13 win over Miami of Ohio. Right in the thick of things was Stamper, a fifth-year senior.
“Brian had, I think, his best game,” Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson said. “Brian has been a real steadying force for our offensive line. It’s great to have him back.”
Stamper’s play, by his own standards, was not up to par.
Midway through the 2006 season, he began to experience back pain. Surgery was required, prematurely terminating a season that began with him being named a preseason All-Southeastern Conference selection.
The NCAA granted Stamper a medical exemption and fifth season of eligibility for 2007, and Stamper proclaimed himself back on top of his game. It was quickly evident, however, that he wasn’t.
“Having not played, I think it took him a couple games, three games, to get back in there and get used to playing again,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t say he’s physically the same as he was before.”
“I was feeling fine, but then you get out on the field and realize that after back surgery, you’re not exactly the same person you used to be,” he said. “My body just wasn’t moving around like it used to. I was giving it my all every time but there were physical limitations.”
Slowly, the back problems have lessened while Stamper’s play has improved. Last week, he and VU offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell watched film of Stamper from the 2005 season, when he became established as one of the SEC’s best tackles.
“He’s starting to look like he did back then,” Caldwell said. “He’s turning up his game.”
Caldwell asked his entire crew to turn up its game, too.
It began two weeks ago, when VU controlled the clock and rushed for 146 yards in an upset victory at South Carolina. In the fourth quarter, the Commodores held the ball for more than 10 minutes to salt away a 17-6 win.
Perhaps there was no other choice. Quarterback Mackenzi Adams was making his first collegiate start. Previous starter Chris Nickson has struggled this season, partly due to a nagging shoulder injury.
Caldwell had new orders for the offensive linemen.
“We had to step up our game a little bit,” Caldwell said. “That was the challenge. Let’s see if we can win the game running the football. That’s exactly what we’ve done the last two weeks.”