SEC: Patrick Benoist
Lewis suffered meniscus damage to his knee last week in the Kentucky game and won’t play against the Vols, Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson said Wednesday following practice. Lewis has been unable to practice this week and will undergo surgery sometime in the next week.
One of the top cornerbacks in the SEC, Lewis ends his Vanderbilt career with 10 interceptions. His 10 picks tie him for second among active players in the league along with Kentucky’s Trevard Lindley.
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Lewis probably didn't get the publicity that he deserved this season, in part because the Commodores had such a tough season on the field. But he's a terrific talent and will be heard from at the next level. He has great size and speed, and the coaches on Vanderbilt's staff think he's an even better NFL prospect than D.J. Moore, who was taken in the fourth round of the draft last year.
Lewis, who had four interceptions this season, is just the latest in a long line of Vanderbilt players to go down with an injury.
The Commodores (2-9, 0-7) have been without senior safety and team captain Ryan Hamilton since the second game of the season when he tore a pectoral muscle.
Quarterback Larry Smith, defensive end Steven Stone, running back Jared Hawkins, running back Zac Stacy and offensive tackle James Williams are among the other starters who’ve either been lost for the season or have missed multiple games.
And during the spring, Vanderbilt lost its leading returning wide receiver, Justin Wheeler, to a knee injury.
Linebacker Patrick Benoist, the second leading tackler on the team, is also in question for the Tennessee game. He suffered a concussion last week against Kentucky.
This was the toughest duty yet. Ranking the linebackers in this league is impossible, which tells you a little bit about the depth at that position in the SEC:
1. Alabama: The one-two punch of Rolando McClain and Dont'a Hightower is as good as there is anywhere in the country. Watch some of the younger guys take off at linebacker this season, too, like Courtney Upshaw and Jerrell Harris. The Crimson Tide have depth, talent and smarts to go around at linebacker.
2. Florida: Brandon Spikes is one of the best middle linebackers in the country and a terrific tone-setter for this defense. The guys flanking him aren't too shabby, either. Brandon Hicks, Ryan Stamper and Dustin Doe are all big-time players in their own right. Remember the name Jelani Jenkins, too. He's only a freshman.
3. Georgia: All three starters from a year ago return, including junior Rennie Curran, the league's top returning tackler. Curran was one of four SEC defenders to have at least 100 tackles last season. The Bulldogs have a bunch of guys at linebacker who can play. Now, let's see if they tackle better than they did a year ago.
4. Vanderbilt: The Commodores are legit. Senior Brent Trice didn't even start last season, but has been so disruptive that it's going to be hard to keep him off the field. Senior Patrick Benoist was a second-team All-SEC selection a year ago, and Chris Marve was one of the best freshman linebackers in the country.
5. Ole Miss: Starting middle linebacker Jonathan Cornell returns along with starting strong side linebacker Allen Walker. Both players have extensive SEC experience and the kind of speed this league demands. The guy to watch is Patrick Trahan, who's a prime candidate for Breakout Player of the Year honors.
6. South Carolina: Ellis Johnson, who oversees the Gamecocks' defense, wishes he had the kind of depth everywhere else he does at linebacker. Eric Norwood, the Gamecocks' senior outside linebacker, is the SEC's career active leader in sacks, and Rodney Paulk returns in the middle after missing most of last season.
7. Mississippi State: The depth might be a little iffy, but it's hard to beat the Bulldogs' top three linebackers, all of whom are 240-plus pounds. Jamar Chaney is back in the middle after breaking his leg in the opener last season. K.J. Wright is another All-SEC caliber player, and junior college newcomer Chris White is the third starter.
8. LSU: The Tigers return both starting outside linebackers from a year ago, Perry Riley and Kelvin Sheppard. First-year coordinator John Chavis has also moved Harry Coleman from safety to outside linebacker. Stepping into the middle is senior Jacob Cutrera, who's been a spot starter for most of his career.
9. Auburn: If the Tigers stay healthy, they probably deserve to move up a little bit. But they're razor thin at linebacker and can't afford for anybody to go down. Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens are back after starting most of last season, and junior college newcomer Eltoro Freeman has fit nicely into this defense.
10. Kentucky: Senior Micah Johnson is one of the most imposing middle linebackers in the league and a tackling machine. He just doesn't have much around him in the way of experience. Senior Sam Maxwell steps in as a full-time starter on the outside, and sophomore Danny Trevathan is the Wildcats' fastest linebacker.
11. Tennessee: Senior weakside linebacker Rico McCoy is the anchor of the Vols' unit and has a ton of experience and talent, but the Vols will play a former walk-on, Nick Reveiz, at middle linebacker and don't have anybody else on the roster who's played a meaningful SEC snap.
12. Arkansas: The entire Arkansas defense took a beating last season, not just the linebackers. Wendel Davis, Jerry Franklin and Freddy Burton are all back after starting in four of the last six games a year ago. They get a chance to prove that they're a lot better than the numbers from 2008 would suggest.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
Biggest reason for hope: Experience, coaching and belief
Take a look at the depth chart, and you'll see that the Commodores have experience in key spots. On defense, Patrick Benoist, Myron Lewis, Chris Marve, Greg Billinger, Broderick Stewart and Ryan Hamilton have all played a lot of football, while everybody is back on the offensive line along with a healthy Jared Hawkins at tailback. It also goes without saying that Bobby Johnson has proven he can coach them up pretty well. Does any other staff in the SEC get as much out of their talent as the Commodores? There's also a belief on this team now that it can compete in the SEC, and much of that goes back to Johnson and the way he's elevated the program and elevated the talent level. Remember, Vanderbilt won four games in the SEC last season, and only Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Ole Miss won more.
Biggest reason for concern: Not enough punch on offense
There's still the matter of sorting out who's going to be the quarterback, and the reality is that Larry Smith and Mackenzi Adams are both going to play. There wasn't enough separation in the spring to name a starter. A bigger question is: Who are they going to throw to? Justin Wheeler blew out his knee during spring practice, and talented transfer Terence Jeffers is still working to be eligible this fall. On paper anyway, there just doesn't seem to be a lot of big-play capability on this offense, and having to drive the field all the time for touchdowns is risky business against SEC defenses. The Commodores should be a little better at running the ball this season and controlling the clock, but they're going to have to find a way to score more points if they want to get back to a bowl game.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
It's no secret that Vanderbilt's players hit the books as hard as they do opposing ball-carriers on Saturday afternoons.
They're also pretty astute when it comes to choosing captains.
The Commodores' players voted last week, and the three guys tabbed were exactly the three I would have chosen.
Senior center Bradley Vierling, also a captain last season, will join senior safety Ryan Hamilton and senior linebacker Patrick Benoist as the captains of the 2009 team. All three are excellent players, and all three have the kind of can-do attitude that wears off on everybody else.
Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson has told me that Hamilton is one of the smartest players he's coached. Maybe that's why Hamilton always seems to be in the right place at the right time. He almost single-handedly beat Ole Miss last season.
Benoist is one of the SEC's most underrated players. He had a team-high 109 tackles last season.
It's telling that Vierling was elected as a captain last season by his teammates before he'd ever started a game for the Commodores. His leadership will be crucial in 2009 as Vanderbilt tries to build on what it did a year ago.
Vierling has made it clear that nobody is settling for status quo.
Near the end of spring practice, he said unabashedly that the Commodores, if anything, underachieved last season.
So while the bowl victory might have been historic, it was hardly the end-all for this group of players.
"Yeah, we're a winning program now, but we had to work our tails off to get to where we are, and we're just going to keep on going," Vierling said.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
Checking in around the SEC to see what else is out there:
- Alabama seniors want to make sure they go out the right way with a win in the Sugar Bowl.
- Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen is knocking on doors and establishing relationships with high school coaches in the state.
- South Carolina athletic director Eric Hyman proposes that Gamecock Club dues be frozen in 2009 to help out fans during these tough economic times.
- Tim Tebow and Sam Bradford bring different quarterback styles to their battle in the FedEx BCS National Championship Game.
- Vanderbilt linebackers Patrick Benoist and Chris Marve have spearheaded the Commodores' defense.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
It wasn't a week of marquee matchups in the SEC, but we did have some marquee performances. The ballots are in, and here are our selections for weekly honors:
Chris Smelley, quarterback, South Carolina: Playing quarterback for the Head Ball Coach ain't the easiest thing in the world to do. Smelley has kept his head, kept his poise and delivered a career performance in South Carolina's 31-24 win over Ole Miss. He threw for a career-high 327 yards and three touchdowns. His completion rate of 63.1 percent leads all SEC quarterbacks who've attempted at least 100 passes this season.
Patrick Benoist, linebacker, Vanderbilt: Despite playing with a cast on his right hand to protect a broken bone he suffered the third week of the season, Benoist just keeps coming up big for the Commodores. He had a team-high 13 tackles in the win over Auburn, including two for loss, and also deflected a pass. Benoist is averaging 10 tackles per game, which is second in the SEC to Florida's Brandon Spikes (10.2 tackles).
Brett Upson, punter, Vanderbilt: Bobby Johnson said a concerted effort was made during the offseason to get better on special teams. Sure enough, the Commodores have continually made things happen in the kicking game this season. Against Auburn, it was Upson coming to the rescue with four of his punts downed inside the 20-yard line. His final one was a 55-yard rocket that pinned the Tigers at their own 3 in the final two minutes.
Robbie Caldwell, offensive line coach, Vanderbilt: The Commodores' play in the offensive line has probably been the most surprising part of their success this season. Caldwell lost all five starters from a year ago, including first-round draft choice Chris Williams, but Vanderbilt has more than held its own up front this season. The Commodores allowed just one sack in the 14-13 win over Auburn, and backup quarterback Mackenzi Adams had plenty of time to throw when he entered for Chris Nickson. Caldwell has his group playing with confidence, playing fast and playing at a high level right now.
2:00 PM ET Washington State Colorado State 3:30 PM ET 20 Fresno State 25 USC 5:30 PM ET Buffalo San Diego State 9:00 PM ET Tulane Louisiana-Lafayette
6:00 PM ET Pittsburgh Bowling Green 9:30 PM ET Utah State 23 Northern Illinois
2:30 PM ET Marshall Maryland 6:00 PM ET Syracuse Minnesota 9:30 PM ET Brigham Young Washington
12:00 PM ET Rutgers Notre Dame 3:20 PM ET Cincinnati North Carolina 6:45 PM ET Miami (FL) 18 Louisville 10:15 PM ET Michigan Kansas State
11:45 AM ET Middle Tennessee Navy 3:15 PM ET Ole Miss Georgia Tech 6:45 PM ET 10 Oregon Texas 10:15 PM ET 14 Arizona State Texas Tech
12:30 PM ET Arizona Boston College 2:00 PM ET Virginia Tech 17 UCLA 4:00 PM ET Rice Mississippi State 8:00 PM ET 24 Duke 21 Texas A&M
12:00 PM ET Nebraska 22 Georgia 12:00 PM ET UNLV North Texas 1:00 PM ET Iowa 16 LSU 1:00 PM ET 19 Wisconsin 9 South Carolina 5:00 PM ET 5 Stanford 4 Michigan State 8:30 PM ET 15 UCF 6 Baylor
7:30 PM ET 13 Oklahoma State 8 Missouri 8:30 PM ET 12 Clemson 7 Ohio State