Exactly two weeks before the season opener, Vanderbilt hasn’t pegged its starting center.
For offensive line coach Herb Hand, this represents a good problem – depth. That word was foreign to Hand when he arrived from Tulsa two Augusts ago.
“It’s not even close,” he said. “The first time I walked into the meeting room here we had 12 offensive linemen total and five of them were true freshmen and Wes Johnson was a redshirt-freshman. So we had six freshmen of the 12 guys. Now we’ve got 17 offensive linemen [including six true freshmen] in our room and we even have a walk-on guy. We’ve never had a walk-on guy since I’ve been here.
“I’ve got a good, solid core of veterans that are providing leadership. They are coaching the young guys up.”
The Commodores entered preseason camp sure of four starting positions on the line: left tackle Wesley Johnson, left guard Ryan Seymour, right tackle Andrew Bridges and left guard Josh Jelesky. Third-year sophomore Chase White, a reserve, also made three starts at guard last year.
While center is undetermined, the top contenders, Spencer Pulley and Joe Townsend, were just two of five true freshmen to play for the Commodores last year.
“It is a great competition,” coach James Franklin said. “They’ll both play. I think Spencer has a slight lead right now but that doesn’t mean we won’t play Townsend at guard and center. Those guys have to be flexible.”
Neither played the position in high school.
Townsend, a Hendersonville product, snapped the ball in three games last year. Pulley, a Germantown native who, like Townsend is 6-foot-4 and weighs around 290 pounds, got his first taste in the spring.
“That took me a while to get used putting my hand in the ground,” Pulley, a former guard, said. “I got to make all the calls. I’m used to hearing the calls, instead of making the calls. There is a lot more noticing everything. I’ve never looked at the safeties and what they’re doing before.”
By the time the season opener rolls around, Hand hopes his snapping duo knows why they are making the certain calls and blocks.
His teaching method is trifold – who-tos, how-tos and why-tos. Pulley and Townsend know who to block in each scheme and are beginning to hone the technique (the how). Now, they just need to get a handle on why they make those blocks and how they fit into the system.
“It all starts with the guy with the ball in his hand,” Hand said. “The center and quarterback are the only two guys who touch the ball on every single play. So it starts with the guy up front in making sure that we are functionally and efficiently. But I like what I see so far out of my group.”
• Wednesday’s two workouts were the last time media could observe practice as Vanderbilt turns its focus to preparing for the season opener against South Carolina on Aug. 30.
On Sunday, Franklin said he’ll begin talking to his freshmen to let them know if they’ll be playing this fall or redshirting and moving to the scout team offense or defense. He plans to announce his starters next Wednesday.
• Defensive tackle Rob Lohr gingerly walked around the morning practice in an orthopedic boot covering his lower left leg. Franklin said Lohr is seeing a specialist and the boot is a precautionary measure.
“I know he is excited about it. We think we found the right person to deal with the issue he’s been dealing with,” Franklin said. “We feel like he’ll be ready to go for the week and half before South Carolina. He’ll be full go, ready to go.”
Two other projected starters, running back Zac Stacy and tight end Austin Monahan, also wore red injury jerseys but still practiced.
• Earlier this week, Franklin awarded another walk-on with a surprise scholarship.
With the entire team gathered after stretching to begin a night practice on Monday, Franklin stunned senior quarterback John Townsley with a full-ride. The Ohio native made the team at Franklin’s first open tryout before spring practices in 2011.
It was the second time in less than a week that a walk-on had been offered a scholarship. Last Wednesday, fourth-year fullback Marc Panu was in disbelief when Franklin gave him a full-ride during a team meeting. The moment was caught on tape and has been viewed nearly 300,000 times on You Tube.