SEC: John Cole
Let’s take a look at what we came up with:
2. LSU: The Tigers might have lost Terrence Toliver, but they’ll still have weapons at receiver. Junior Rueben Randle is expected to be the go-to guy in LSU’s offense and is coming off a season where he caught 33 passes for 544 yards and three touchdowns. Russell Shepard was right behind him last season, catching the same amount of balls, but only totaled 254 yards and one touchdown. He looked sharper this spring and is looking to break out this fall. Tight end Deangelo Peterson should also get more attention this fall. He only caught 16 passes, but that number should increase.
3. South Carolina: For starters, the Gamecocks have the league’s best receiver in Alshon Jeffery. The 6-foot-4, 233-pound freak snatched just about everything that came his way last fall and registered 1,517 yards and nine touchdowns. He’s nearly impossible to stop in one-on-one situations. Senior Jason Barnes didn't make a major impact in 2010, but he does have 60 career receptions under his belt. The smaller Ace Sanders should be even better after bursting onto the scene with 25 receptions for 316 yards and two touchdowns. D.L. Moore, who caught 17 passes in 2010, should have a more expanded role as well.
5. Tennessee: Neither Justin Hunter nor Da'Rick Rogers had a ton of catches last fall, but that will change with a strong passing game in 2011. Hunter caught 16 passes, but registered 415 yards and seven touchdowns in the process. He’s a solid deep threat and playmaker. Rogers also only caught 16 passes, and while he didn’t have the yardage Hunter had, he made tremendous strides this spring. Tight end Mychal Rivera caught 11 passes in 2010 and with Luke Stocker gone he takes over as the Vols’ weapon at tight end.
6. Alabama: There aren’t a lot of questions surrounding the Crimson Tide, but receiver isn’t Alabama’s best area. Seniors Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks should get the brunt of the catches. They combined for 70 catches for 1,013 yards and six touchdowns last season. There is a long list of other inexperienced players who should grab some catches as well and former Ohio State receiver Duron Carter, who just transferred in, could be a factor this fall.
7. Florida: The Gators have talent at wide receiver, and Florida should have a more pass-friendly offense, but the group is very unproven. Frankie Hammond Jr. could be Florida’s best weapon at receiver with his speed and athleticism. Omarius Hines has the size and speed to be a major mismatch for defenders in the slot and on the outside. Freshman Quinton Dunbar was Florida’s top deep threat this spring and should get ample playing time. At tight end, Jordan Reed was called Florida’s best athlete and could end up being the Gators’ top playmaker. Trey Burton should catch a few more passes as well.
9. Auburn: There is still some talent left on the Plains at receiver. Sure, Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachery are gone, but the Tigers will look to Emory Blake and Trovon Reed to make up for their departures. Blake is the leading returning receiver, while Reed will be used all over the field by Auburn’s coaches. He can be a threat in the slot and on the outside. Philip Lutzenkirchen will be more of a staple in the offense as the Tigers’ trusted H-back.
10. Ole Miss: Athletically, the Rebels are fine. However, this group is very inexperienced and was inconsistent this spring. The incoming freshmen will have every opportunity to take a starting spot and Tobias Singleton could be the best option of Ole Miss’ youngsters. Of the returners, Melvin Harris did the most in 2010, catching 30 passes for 408 yards and three touchdowns. Redshirt freshman Vincent Sanders will also get a chance to heavily contribute after making strong strides this spring.
11. Vanderbilt: Four of Vanderbilt’s five receiving leaders return, but the group wasn’t tremendously productive last fall. The Commodores didn’t have a receiver go over 320 yards last season and tight end Brandon Barden caught a team-high 34 passes for 425 yards. Vanderbilt's top two wideouts -- John Cole and Jonathan Krause -- are back, but the Commodores might have to turn to their youngsters for help.
12. Kentucky: The Wildcats lost a lot when do-everything Randall Cobb left early for the NFL and things didn’t get any better by losing No. 2 wideout Chris Matthews. Now, it’s back to the drawing board in Lexington. La'Rod King should be the top target for quarterback Morgan Newton, but he disappointed at times this spring. Matt Roark and E.J. Fields will compete for time, but both need vast improvement. The top athlete could be Brian Adams, but he spent spring playing for Kentucky’s baseball team.
Strongest position: Secondary
Key returnees: Junior strong safety Sean Richardson (84 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, two pass breakups), junior cornerback Casey Hayward (58 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions), junior cornerback Jamie Graham (27 tackles, two interceptions), sophomore cornerback Eddie Foster (17 tackles, one interception)
Key departures: Cornerback Myron Lewis (41 tackles, four interceptions), safety Ryan Hamilton (seven tackles)
The skinny: It’s hard to argue the Commodores’ strength at running back with SEC Freshman of the Year Warren Norman returning along with a healthy Zac Stacy. But they should be even stronger in the secondary, where Richardson and Hayward will be among the best players at their respective positions in the conference next season. Richardson has All-SEC potential after a terrific sophomore season. He’s a sure tackler who’s always around the ball and making plays. He also showed his toughness a year ago by playing through a hand injury. Hayward’s running mate at cornerback will be the versatile Graham, who spent some time on offense earlier in his career, but seems settled in now in the defensive backfield. Foster returns as the nickel back and added some size and muscle during the offseason. Jamie Bryant’s secondary has finished in the top-20 nationally against the pass each of the past three seasons and will incorporate some promising young players into the mix this fall, including redshirt freshman safety Jay Fullam.
Weakest position: Wide receivers
Key returnees: Sophomore John Cole (36 catches, 382 yards, one touchdown), junior Udom Umoh (20 catches, 267 yards, one touchdown)
Key departures: Alex Washington (11 catches, 125 yards)
The skinny: The Commodores have had some bad luck at the receiver position the last couple of years with Terence Jeffers not making it academically and Justin Wheeler suffering a serious knee injury. And even though Cole battled and scrapped his way to an SEC All-Freshman season a year ago, the Commodores simply didn’t have a lot of options in the passing game, at least the kind that are going to keep SEC defenses honest. One of the most encouraging developments of the spring was the way sophomore Brady Brown came on after playing early last season as a true freshman and then injuring his leg. He could be a nice complement to Cole, who was pretty much a one-man show a year ago. Umoh still needs to be more consistent catching the ball, and perhaps junior Tray Herndon will find his niche in this offense after doing very little last season following his transfer from Minnesota. The same goes for sophomore Akeem Dunham. Nobody on the team caught more than one touchdown pass a year ago, which isn’t all the receivers’ fault. But they do need to make more plays down the field to open up things for the offense in 2010. A pair of 6-4 incoming freshmen, Chris Boyd and Jordan Matthews, won’t have to wait long to show what they can do once they get on the practice field in August.
2009 conference record: 0-8
Offense: 7; Defense: 5; Kicker/punter: 1
QB Larry Smith, RB Warren Norman, RB Zac Stacy, TE Brandon Barden, DT Adam Smotherman, LB Chris Marve, CB Casey Hayward, S Sean Richardson
OT Thomas Welch, C Bradley Vierling, DE Broderick Stewart, LB Patrick Benoist, CB Myron Lewis, S Ryan Hamilton, P Brett Upson
2009 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Warren Norman* (783 yards)
Passing: Larry Smith* (1,126 yards)
Receiving: John Cole* (382 yards)
Tackles: Chris Marve* (121)
Sacks: Greg Billinger (3.5)
Interceptions: Myron Lewis (4)
1. Strength in the secondary: The Commodores will again be strong in the secondary under the guidance of defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Jamie Bryant. Losing a cornerback the caliber of Myron Lewis always stings, but the duo of Sean Richardson at safety and Casey Hayward at cornerback gives the Commodores a solid core. Eddie Foster returns as the nickel back, while cornerback Jamie Graham is one of the most versatile players on the team.
2. A May find: Redshirt freshman defensive end Walker May had two sacks and two hurries in the Black and Gold spring scrimmage to cap an outstanding spring. With the loss of senior ends Broderick Stewart and Steven Stone, the Commodores were looking for pass-rushers, and May fits that bill.
3. Running game options: The Commodores won’t have any shortage of options in their offensive backfield. Warren Norman, Zac Stacy and Kennard Reeves all had their moments this spring. If Warren and Stacy can both stay healthy next season, that’s a combo that should be plenty effective in 2010. Plus, the Commodores will add Wesley Tate to the mix in the fall. He missed the spring with a foot injury.
1. Finding some points: After struggling to score points last season, Vanderbilt’s offense wasn’t much better this spring. The Commodores went the first 13 possessions of the Black and Gold spring scrimmage without scoring a touchdown. But in one final scrimmage to end the spring, the offense fared a little better by scoring on its first three drives to at least go into the summer with a little momentum. It's an offense that needs more playmakers. John Cole was a one-man show last season at receiver. Maybe freshman receivers Chris Boyd and Jordan Matthews are the answer.
2. Quarterback uncertainty: Nobody won the quarterback battle, and it's not because everybody was so effective. Jared Funk pushed Larry Smith, and junior college newcomer Jordan Rodgers started to come on after a slow start to the spring. Smith is still the guy to beat, but he’s going to have to prove to the coaches and his teammates this summer and then in the preseason that he’s going to be more consistent and more efficient under center. Otherwise, you could see a couple of different players taking snaps for the Commodores in the fall. Rodgers is a redshirt candidate if he doesn't win the job.
3. Settling on the offensive line: There’s still several different directions the Commodores could go in their offensive line. One of the keys will be tackle James Williams returning from a broken ankle he suffered last season. It also didn’t help that Ryan Seymour, expected to be the other tackle, missed most of the spring with a shoulder injury. Finding a right guard will be critical in the preseason, although senior Joey Bailey entrenched himself at center.
Strongest position: Running back
Key returnees: Warren Norman, Zac Stacy
Key departures: Jared Hawkins
The skinny: Norman returns after earning SEC Freshman of the Year honors last season. He led the Commodores with 783 rushing yards, averaging 5.4 yards per carry, and tied an SEC record with three kickoffs returned for touchdowns. Stacy also had a solid debut season in the SEC despite battling an ankle injury for much of the year. Stacy wound up with 478 rushing yards and averaged 4.5 yards per carry. Both players should be even better their second time around in the league and with a spring practice under their belts. Plus, the Commodores will add redshirt freshman Wesley Tate to the mix in 2010. He’s the younger brother of former Notre Dame star Golden Tate, and Vanderbilt would like to get him the ball in a number of different ways. It’s a running back stable that would have been even deeper had it not been for the tragic death of top signee Rajaan Bennett in February.
Weakest position: Wide receiver
Key returnees: John Cole, Udom Umoh
Key departures: Alex Washington
The skinny: It’s not that the Commodores lost a bunch of talented guys at the receiver position. Rather, they remain extremely unproven, and it’s difficult to point to somebody on the roster right now and say, "This is the guy who’s going to scare SEC defenses down the field." Cole was the Commodores’ leading receiver a year ago with 36 catches for 382 yards. He’s tough, dependable and isn’t afraid to go get the ball. He simply doesn’t have a lot of help. Vanderbilt only had two touchdown receptions last season from its wide receivers. The staff is optimistic that Brady Brown will take a big step next season after playing early as a true freshman a year ago and then injuring his leg. The Commodores signed a pair of 6-4 freshmen – Chris Boyd and Jordan Matthews – and they probably won't have to wait long to get on the field. It helps that the Commodores have two good tight ends in Austin Monahan and Brandon Barden, but they need to find more playmakers on the outside.
It’s his job to win … but he still has to win it.
Smith started every game last season as a sophomore until injuring his hamstring and missing the final three games.
It was a forgettable season all the way around for the Commodores on offense. That’s what happens when you go 2-10 and finish 113th nationally in scoring offense.
Smith doesn’t necessarily like to look back, but he’s also quick to point out that he’s a better quarterback for having gone through last season in the SEC.
“Reading defenses should be one of the most improved areas for me,” Smith said. “Last year, I had started just one game heading into the season, and it showed. The main thing is experience and knowing how to react when something goes wrong.”
Smith completed 46.7 percent of his passes last season for 1,126 yards four touchdowns and seven interceptions. The Commodores moved the ball well at times, but their issue was getting into the end zone.
In 36 red zone trips last season, they scored just 14 touchdowns. Go back and look at how that compares to the 2008 season when the Commodores won seven games. They had 35 red zone trips that season and scored 23 touchdowns.
Not surprisingly, the Commodores have gone heavy this spring on full-contact work in the red zone, and they’ve also emphasized third-down situations.
Smith shared the quarterback snaps with senior Jared Funk and redshirt freshman Charlie Goro during Tuesday’s scrimmage. Junior college transfer Jordan Rodgers will likely be more of a factor as the spring progresses and he learns more of the playbook.
And while the Commodores certainly have to be better at quarterback next season if they’re going to be more potent offensively, the guys around the quarterback also have to make more plays.
“We just have to go out there and catch the ball no matter who’s throwing it to us,” sophomore receiver John Cole said. “I think the experience factor will help us, having a year in this offense under our belts, but it still gets down to making enough plays to win and doing all the little things right.
“There’s nothing we can do about last year. We’ll move on and start over.”
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
One of the keys to the improvement in Vanderbilt’s program under Bobby Johnson has been the added depth.
The Commodores have better players and more of them.
As a result, when they’ve lost starters in recent years, it hasn’t been as catastrophic.
That theory is really being tested this season.
Two more starters had surgery earlier this week -- receiver John Cole and strong safety Sean Richardson. Cole broke his hand and will miss the Ole Miss game Saturday. Richardson tore a tendon in his thumb and may possibly be able to play this weekend with a cast, but Johnson knows there are no guarantees.
Vanderbilt was already without senior free safety Ryan Hamilton, who suffered a season-ending injury against LSU. Hamilton was a captain and huge component in the Commodores’ defense. Also, senior defensive end Steven Stone remains out after breaking his foot in the preseason.
The Commodores aren’t sure about the status of freshman running back Zac Stacy (ankle) and defensive tackle T.J. Greenstone (knee) for the Ole Miss game.
Counting academic suspensions and injuries, Johnson said the Commodores are without nine or 10 players they were counting on back in the spring.
They’ve been decimated at receiver. Losing Connecticut transfer Terence Jeffers-Harris to academics was a crippling blow, as was losing senior receiver Justin Wheeler to a knee injury in the spring.
“Like just about every football team at this time of the year, our depth is going to be challenged,” Johnson said. “There’s not much you can do about it. You try to mix and match at places the best you can. I think our coaches have done a good job of that already.”
If Richardson can’t go this weekend or is limited, the Commodores plan to slide Brent Trice from linebacker back to safety.
They’re also hopeful that nickelback Jamie Graham will be able to play this week. Graham missed the Rice game with a concussion.
Despite the injuries on defense, Vanderbilt has held together well. The Commodores are fourth in the SEC in scoring defense (13.8 points per game) and fifth in total defense (266 yards per game).
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
Terence Jeffers-Harris, we hardly knew you.
His bid to gain eligibility came up short this summer, and Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson announced following practice Monday night that Jeffers-Harris would not be playing for the Commodores.
Jeffers-Harris, who sat out last season after transferring from Connecticut, was not eligible under NCAA rules, according to Johnson.
"Obviously, he's a very good player. But unless you've got him out there playing, he's no good for you," Johnson said of the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Jeffers-Harris, who was one of Vanderbilt's top playmakers during the spring. "He's going to have to go elsewhere. I would think he needs to transfer. I don't think he's ready to go pro, in my opinion."
It's certainly a blow for the Commodores to lose a player the caliber of Jeffers-Harris, but Johnson sounded like he was almost braced for it a couple of weeks ago at the SEC media days. Jeffers-Harris wasn't even included in the media guide. So, obviously, this is not a huge surprise for Johnson and his staff.
What it means for some of the other receivers on the team, none of them proven, is that the race is on to become the Commodores' go-to guy.
Right now, they don't have one.
Jeffers-Harris is the second key cog in the passing game the Commodores have lost. Fifth-year senior Justin Wheeler went down with a knee injury in the spring, ending his Vanderbilt career. He started 10 games a year ago.
Jamie Graham, who moved over to defensive back, may end up doing a D.J. Moore impersonation and playing both ways this season.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
Adams, competing with sophomore Larry Smith for the starting job, hit tight end Justin Green with a 28-yard touchdown pass. Funk connected wide receiver Turner Wimberly on a 32-yard sideline route resulting in another score.
Several defenders, including cornerback Casey Hayward, linebacker Chris Marve and defensive end Theron Kadri, made key individual plays to stop possessions.
Other highlights included:
- Physical running by tailback Kennard Reeves, who punished Hayward at the end of a 11-yard carry. Earlier in the practice, Reeves broke two tackles on an impressive 30-yard rush.
- Receiver John Cole showed continued progress returning from injury, catching five passes, including a pair of acrobatic passes. Cole also dodged tackles on three of the receptions for extra yardage.
- Before colliding with Reeves on the sidelines, Hayward made an impressive third-down tackle for loss of tailback Ryan van Rensburg to halt the first possession.
- A quarterback sack by Marve and tackle for loss by tackle Billinger helped the defense stop two other drives.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
Unfortunately for Vanderbilt, the Commodores have suffered the first major blow of the spring on the injury front.
Senior receiver Justin Wheeler suffered an ACL tear during a non-contact drill in practice on Saturday and will likely miss the 2009 season. Wheeler, who's already redshirted, started 10 games for the Commodores last season and was their most experienced returnee at a position that features very little experience. He caught 16 passes, including a touchdown, in 2008.
With Wheeler out, that means transfers Terence Jeffers and Trey Herndon will be more important than ever next season for the Commodores.
Already, Jeffers has made his presence felt. He caught a 38-yard touchdown pass in Sunday's scrimmage and was one of the most talented playmakers on the field last year during practice while sitting out the season following his transfer from Connecticut.
This is also a big spring for John Cole, who played in the first game last season as a true freshman, but was injured. Senior Alex Washington is another receiver the Commodores are counting on. Washington injured his knee about this same time last spring. He returned and tried to play last season, but was never 100 percent.
12:00 PM ET South Carolina 21 Clemson 12:00 PM ET 16 Georgia Tech 9 Georgia 12:00 PM ET Kentucky 22 Louisville 3:30 PM ET Florida 3 Florida State 3:30 PM ET 4 Mississippi State 19 Ole Miss 4:00 PM ET Tennessee Vanderbilt 7:45 PM ET 15 Auburn 1 Alabama