September 6, 2006

Commodores trying to adapt post-Cutler

What: Vanderbilt (0-1) at No. 24 Alabama (1-0)
Where: Bryant-Denny Stadium (92,138), Tuscaloosa, Ala.
When: Sept. 9, 2006
Time/TV: 2:30 p.m. CT/Fox Sports South
Series history: Alabama leads, 56-19-4.
Last meeting: 2002: Alabama 30, Vanderbilt 8.

About Vanderbilt
Head Coach: Bobby Johnson has compiled a record of 11-36 in four-plus seasons at Vanderbilt. Prior to making his way to Nashville, Johnson guided Furman to a 60-36 overall mark in eight seasons as the Paladins' head coach. Under Johnson, Furman made a run to the Division I-AA national championship game (one of four NCAA appearances by his teams) in 2001 and won two Southern Conference titles.

How Vanderbilt's offense operates: With Jay Cutler at the controls, the Commodores employed multiple formations, but the attack was based largely on spread principles. With sophomore Chris Nickson under center, the offense looked the same in Vanderbilt's 27-7 loss at Michigan on Saturday but it's still a long way from having the quick-strike ability Cutler brought to the table over the last four years. Even Cutler wasn't immune to the quarterback runs this offense calls for, and the Alabama defense can expect to see plenty of those from Nickson, who had 22 rushing yards on 16 carries in his first start.

Until Nickson proves capable of getting it done through the air, offensive coordinator Ted Cain will look for other ways (reverses, handoffs, etc…) to get the ball into wide receiver Earl Bennett's capable hands.

In limiting the Commodores to 171 total yards and nine first downs, Michigan's defense was in one of its two nickel packages (3-3-5 and 4-2-5) on 37 of Vanderbilt's 49 offensive plays.

Vanderbilt's best offensive player: In 2005, Bennett, who caught six passes for 58 yards and threw a touchdown pass at Michigan, put together one of the most productive seasons ever by a freshman receiver in the SEC. The Birmingham native quickly became Cutler's favorite target a season ago, hauling in 79 passes for 876 yards and nine touchdowns.

Greatest area of strength for the Vanderbilt offense: In the preseason, Brian Stamper and Chris Williams were billed as one of the SEC's top tackle tandems for 2006. A three-year starter on the right side, Stamper was a second-team all-SEC selection as a junior. During the offseason, Stamper increased his bench press to 500 pounds, while also setting new agility standards for Commodore linemen. Williams started at both guard and tackle last season, but appears to have found a home at left tackle.

When the Commodores run the ball Johnson will call on: Junior Cassen Jackson-Garrison, the Commodores' leading rusher (534 yards) a season ago, was victimized by a talented Michigan defense front that dominated the line of scrimmage in the opener. Jackson-Garrison finished the day with eights yards rushing on eight carries. His backup, Jared Hawkins, ran for 18 yards on two carries. Cain tried to make good use of Nickson's mobility in the UM loss by mixing in the speed option. It was the only running play that produced decent gains on the ground.

These are the guys quarterback Chris Nickson will look to throw to: In addition to Bennett, Marlon White and George Smith are back after recording 34 and 24 receptions, respectively, in 2005. The trio are being counted on to boost Nickson's confidence, but in committing no fewer than four drops in Ann Arbor, they didn't exactly help him out in his debut. Vanderbilt's first scoring aerial of the 2006 season came on a double-pass from Nickson to Bennett to White from 30 yards out. White added another reception for five yards, while Sean Walker had one grab for 11 yards. Smith's lone reception at Michigan went for nine yards. Fullback Steven Bright had two receptions for 16 yards.

Where's the weakness on offense?: A rushing attack that ranked 10th in the SEC in rushing last fall, mustered a grand total of 42 yards against UM. Vanderbilt's offensive line was no match for the Wolverine front, as Nickson, who didn't show the ability to come off his primary receiver when he was covered, was sacked six times.

How Vanderbilt's defense operates: Defensive coordinator Bruce Fowler's unit bases out of a 4-3 alignment.Vanderbilt will undoubtedly follow Hawai'i's lead in putting eight men in the box in an effort to take the Tide's running game out of the equation.

Vanderbit's best defensive player: Middle linebacker Jonathan Goff, who finished third on the team in tackles last season and, is the latest product of Vanderbilt's underrated linebacker pipeline. The junior racked up 14 tackles, blocked a field goal attempt and tipped a PAT in the Michigan loss. Along with Stamper, Goff serves as a co-captain for the 2006 team.

Greatest area of strength for the Commodore defense: You wouldn't know it based on the 246 rushing yards Michigan put up in week one, but the strength of the Vanderbilt defense remains up the middle, where Goff, defensive tackle Theo Horrocks and safety Reshard Langford can be found.

Where's the weakness on defense?: A pass defense that ranked 11th in the SEC in 2005 is still without a productive pass rusher. Michigan quarterback Chad Henne's numbers (10 of 22 for 135 yards and two TDs) against Vandy were rather pedestrian, but like Nickson, he also had several of his passes go in and out of the hands of UM receivers.

Kickin' it up a notch: Bryant Hahnfeldt was named to the 2005 Freshman all-SEC team after converting 12 of 17 field goal attempts a season ago. Blessed with a strong leg, Hahnfeldt made good on 5 of 7 attempts between 40-49 yards and had a long make of 48 yards. Of his five misses, four were blocked. Hahnfeldt made good on his lone extra-point attempt in the opener. The Commodores ranked last in the SEC in net punting (30.2 ypp) in 2005, which explains why they broke in a true freshman punter at Michigan. Brett Upson averaged 36.3 yards on seven punts against the Wolverines. Two of his boots were downed inside the 20. Goff's field goal block led to the Commodores' lone touchdown in the opener. Even having Bennett back deep couldn't keep Vandy from finishing 11th in punt return average (6.3 ypr) last season.

Odds and ends: In preparing for the Commodores, Alabama should be able to draw on defensive ends coach [db]David Turner's time under Johnson at Vanderbilt. In January, Turner, the Commodores' defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator from 2003-05, was hired by UA head coach Mike Shula to replace Paul Randolph, who left Alabama for the defensive coordinator post at Rice…Prior to signing with the Commodores, Nickson teamed with UA tight end Nick Walker to lead Pike County High School in Brundidge, Ala., to the 2003 Class 3A state championship. As one might expect, Nickson, who wasn't offered a scholarship by the Tide, is looking forward to returning to his home state. "I'm very excited," said Nickson, who was named Alabama's Mr. Football following his senior season at Pike County. "I don't know if words can explain it. There are a lot of things going on, personal and team things going on with that game, and it's going to be a great experience." Instead of going after Nickson, Alabama opted instead for John Parker Wilson, who accepted UA's grayshirt offer.

2006 Vanderbilt schedule
Sept. 2 @ Michigan (L, 27-7)
Sept. 9 @ Alabama 2:30 p.m. CT/FSS
Sept. 16 Arkansas 11:30 a.m. CT/LFS
Sept. 23 Tennessee State
Sept. 30 Kent State
Oct. 7 @ Ole Miss
Oct. 14 @ Georgia
Oct. 21 South Carolina
Oct. 28 @ Duke
Nov. 4 Florida
Nov. 11 @ Kentucky
Nov. 18 Tennessee

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