That notion is supported by the fact that 19 starters return from the team that went 7-6 overall, 4-4 in the SEC and defeated Boston College in the Music City Bowl. That group included nine on offense, nine on defense and punter Brett Upson, the MVP of the bowl game.
It’s also telling that not all of those returning starters’ jobs are safe. More than at any time during coach Bobby Johnson’s tenure, there is competition for playing time … and at some prominent positions.
“We have that situation at wide receiver, we have the same situation at (cornerback), we have the same situation at tight end, offensive line, we have some defensive line guys who can be competing for jobs, linebackers,” Johnson said. “I hope they want to play. I hope they want to show us that they’re the best player or (at least) the better player. It depends on how many you’ve got (at a position).”
The most notable openings are at quarterback, where Chris Nickson was the starter for much of last season, and cornerback, where D.J. Moore spent the majority of his time in what turned out to be a dynamic all-around season for him. In each case, there is more than one possible replacement.
Sophomore Larry Smith, who started the Music City Bowl, and senior Mackenzie Adams, who started three times in 2008, are the two primary options at quarterback.
Sophomores Casey Hayward and Jamie Graham are the two choices to replace Moore. Graham has the potential to contribute in the return game and on offense the way Moore, did, but Hayward has the inside track on starting for the defense this fall.
There seemingly are no openings on either the offensive and defensive lines, where every starter from last season returned. However, it is possible that there will be changes at those spots as well.
On the offensive line, for example, senior Thomas Welch started every game at right tackle last fall but might wind up on the left side to make room for sophomore James Williams, who was not a starter. Junior Reilly Lauer and sophomore Kyle Fischer, who both started at left tackle, could be looking at different positions and/or roles as reserves.
“We have a lot of backups coming back, which is huge for us,” center Bradley Vierling said. “It's always been Vanderbilt's story that we always start well but falter towards the end and that we never had enough depth. Now we finally have that. We have starters coming back and reserves coming back. We have backups pushing for starting spots. It's more competitive than it's ever been.”
The same is true on the defensive line where three seniors — Broderick Stewart, Greg Billinger and Steven Stone — and a junior — Adam Smotherman — return as starters but are not necessarily guaranteed to finish the season that way.
“We feel great about our defensive line,” Johnson said. “That's traditionally been a really tough position for us to gain a lot of depth in. … We're going to have some people to push (our starters).”
That sort of competition in the locker room creates the impression that the Commodores will continue to get better on the field.
They won just three games in each of their first three seasons under Johnson but have won at least twice that many each of the four years since. The winning record in 2008 was the school’s first since 1982 and the bowl victory was its first since 1955.
Vanderbilt’s four conference victories in 2008 were one more than in the previous two seasons combined. Not only that, but only one of its SEC losses was by more than 10 points.
“It’s never easy — ever — which is why we love to play in this conference,” Vierling said. “Week-in, week-out anybody can win in the SEC. That’s how it’s always been, especially now. This is the most competitive it’s ever been.
“We used to be the whipping boys and now we’re not.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Jared Hawkins, running back
The senior’s yards-per-carry average has declined each season as his carries have increased. The drop to 4.3 in 2008 was due in part to a foot injury, which required offseason surgery.
For the offense to be most effective, he’ll have to be productive week-to-week or even down-to-down, and in order to do that he’ll have to be healthy.
Ryan Hamilton, safety
With the departure of Reshard Langford, Hamilton – a team captain – is now the leader of the secondary. He can make plays, as evidenced by his 104 tackles in 2008, but he must make more big plays against the pass.
He had four interceptions last season, but three of those came in one game, and he broke up just one pass.