If there was ever a time to throw a freshman into the fire and give him the first of start of his career this would not be it – not for Vanderbilt’s offensive line.
The Commodores host No. 19 South Carolina on Saturday night and it appears Vanderbilt will be without senior center Joey Bailey, who injured his ankle during last week’s loss to Georgia. Bailey wore an orthopedic boot during Wednesday's workout and head coach Robbie Caldwell classified him as doubtful for the game.
True freshmen Logan Stewart and James Kittredge split time at center during the practice. Caldwell said redshirt-sophomore guard Jabo Burrow is also available at that spot. Burrow is listed at the top of the depth chart at left guard, where he has started twice this year.
“We’ll have some options,” Caldwell, the Commodores' former offensive line coach, said. “I’ve got faith in them.”
What complicates things for Vanderbilt (2-4, 1-3 Southeastern Conference) is that South Carolina’s defensive line isn’t a pushover – literally.
The Gamecocks (4-2, 3-2) have recorded a league-high 22 sacks and twice have had seven-sack games – against Furman and in their upset of then-No. 1 Alabama.
“They play physical ball,” Vanderbilt left guard Kyle Fischer, a native of Columbia, S.C., said. “That is one of the biggest things when you play in the trenches, is to be physical. They’re fast. They’re strong. They play in the SEC. You don’t expect nothing less but that.”
Leading the way for South Carolina are defensive ends Devin Taylor and Melvin Ingram, who each have 4.5 sacks. Due to Taylor’s size – he is 6-foot-7 and 249 pounds - he catches the attention of most opposing teams and coaches.
Caldwell is no exception.
“Now the one gentleman there – I’m not good with names – but he is about 7-foot tall. Looks like Manute Bol,” Caldwell said. “Obviously (Taylor’s) a lot more physical and can run. He is a tall drink of water. If he gets close to the quarterback he is going to bat the ball. He is just a tremendous pass rusher.”
Except for two games, Vanderbilt protected the quarterback well this season. The Commodores allowed six sacks against LSU and five against Connecticut, which accounts for all but four of the 15 they have allowed overall.
Among SEC schools, only Alabama (21) and Tennessee (23) have allowed more.
“We’ve got to be careful with what we ask them to do – choose our protections wisely,” Caldwell said. “We’ve got to be able to rush the football so we can throw when we want to and don’t have to get in those modes where if they know we are going to throw it, it is going to be hard.”
If Bailey can’t go, all signs point to Stewart, a native of Boiling Springs, S.C. who is second on the depth chart, getting the start.
Caldwell said the main emphasis with Stewart this week is getting the snap correct first, and then worry about blocking.
“He has just got to concentrate on doing that and making sure the quarterback handles the ball OK. And then we’ll go from there,” Caldwell said. “That puts a little hesitation in his takeoff. That is always hard but that is what we have to do.”
Regardless of how the center position plays out, the Commodores know it won’t come down to one man. The entire offensive line will have to put forth its best effort in order to contain the Gamecocks’ explosiveness.
“Every week is going to come down to who wins the battle in the trenches,” Fischer said. “But this week is definitely going to be a good challenge on the O-line.”