With a little less than two weeks before the season-opener against Western Carolina, Vanderbilt’s football practices are about to change from a YMCA approach (everyone gets to participate) to more of an NCAA one.
“The emphasis for our coaches, especially in team situations, is going to shift more to the guys who are going to play for us,” coach Bobby Johnson. “That’s going to be disappointing for some, but they’re going to have to help us as members of the scout team.”
Johnson thus far has declined to name his starter at quarterback or any other position where playing time has been up for grabs.
He admitted, though, that same decisions have been made more difficult by injuries. For example, senior running back Jared Hawkins and redshirt-freshman wide receiver John Cole both entered the month expected to be starters, but each has been injured twice and has watched more of the preseason workouts than not.
“That sure throws a big monkey wrench into it,” Johnson said. “A guy like John Cole has a lot of ability but he just hasn’t practiced that much.
“… At all positions you hope somebody steps up and says, ‘I’m the guy’ with the way he plays.”
A look at how some of Vanderbilt’s important position battles might end up:
• Quarterback: Neither senior Mackenzie Adams nor sophomore Larry Smith consistently has stood out in comparison to the other. Adams’ history shows that he has been better coming off the bench, and the potential for Smith to develop over the next three years makes it likely that Smith will get the first opportunity.
• Running back: Hawkins still has the inside track on this spot because of his size and experience. He has to practice soon, though, and for more than just one or two days. If he is not ready or healthy a pair of small, shifty, speedy freshmen – Zac Stacy and Warren Norman – will get their chances quickly. Sophomore Jermaine Doster, who had an injury of his own, likely remains in the mix as well.
• Wide receiver: No position was more open this offseason following the departures of Sean Walker and George Smith and the severe knee injury Justin Wheeler sustained in the spring. Alex Washington and Udom Umoh are unquestionably the top two, but the Commodores will use a lot of three-receiver sets this fall. The last one should be Cole’s spot, but with him hurt guys like Tuner Wimberly and converted tight end Justin Green will play plenty.
• Outside linebacker: Patrick Benoist and Chris Marve, the top two tacklers a year ago, are solid in two of the three linebacker spots. At the other, however, senior Brent Trice, who converted from safety in 2008, looks to have overtaken John Stokes. Coaches have moved Stokes around, though, to make sure he still can get on the field any number of ways if situations dictate.
• Cornerback: One of the biggest questions following 2008 was who was going to replace D.J. Moore. That has been answered by sophomore Casey Hayward, who had a good spring and has kept a firm hold on that position over the last two and half weeks. Hayward won’t play on offense or return kicks as Moore did, but he won’t create a noticeable drop in performance on defense either.
• Defensive end: This one only came open last week when senior Steven Stone, a two-year starter, sustained a broken foot. Stone expects to be back by early October. In the meantime, sophomore Tim Fugger steps up. There also exists the possibility that Fugger could play in a situational rotation with Theron Kadri andor Johnell Thomas.