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March 10, 2009

Vandy needs strong QB play to build on success

Winning seven games and going to a bowl is the same old, same old at most SEC schools.

But not at Vanderbilt.

The Commodores went bowling for the first time since 1982 last season and won a bowl game for the first time since 1955. The emphasis this spring will be on making sure there is a carryover effect.

The top priority is finding a new quarterback and sprucing up the offense. The defense returns nine starters and should be stingy.

Here's a look at the Commodores as they prepare to open spring practice.

Mackenzi Adams will battle Larry Smith for the starting quarterback job.
Coach: Bobby Johnson
Last season: 7-6, 4-4 SEC. Beat Boston College in the Music City Bowl.
Spring dates: March 10-March 28
Offense (10): TE Brandon Barden, G Ryan Custer, T Kyle Fischer, WR Jamie Graham, TB Jared Hawkins, G Eric Hensley, T Reilly Lauer, G Bradley Vierling, T Thomas Welch, WR Justin Wheeler.
Defense (9): LB Patrick Benoist, T Greg Billinger, FS Ryan Hamilton, CB Myron Lewis, LB Chris Marve, T Adam Smotherman, E Broderick Stewart, LB John Stokes, E Steven Stone.
Special teams (1): P Brett Upson.
Positions of strength

The entire front seven returns on defense. Two linebackers have impressive credentials: Patrick Benoist earned All-SEC recognition and Chris Marve made some freshman All-American lists. They both had more than 100 tackles in '08 for a defense that ranked 30th in the nation. Six offensive linemen who started at least seven games return, giving the coaches some experienced players on the unit. While the rushing attack wasn't consistent last season, the linemen were inexperienced. Although the Commodores' passing stats were modest, optimism abounds at wide receiver. Redshirt freshman John Cole is coming back from injury and sophomore Jamie Graham showed some ability last season. Transfers Terence Jeffers (from Connecticut) and Tray Herndon (from Minnesota) really have the coaches excited.

Help is needed

Vandy has not produced a 1,000-yard running back since 1995. Last season's leading rusher, Jared Hawkins, managed 593 yards and four rushing touchdowns. Clearly, the Commodores need to be more successful on the ground. The Commodores also face the awesome task of replacing All-America cornerback D.J. Moore. Moore also played some offense and was a dangerous return man, which hurts even more. Vandy also needs to find a consistent quarterback.

Keep an eye on

WR Casey Hayward: Replacing Moore won't be easy, but Hayward, a sophomore, has shown enough flashes to spark optimism. He was solid in practices all season, then played well against Boston College in the Music City Bowl. He had three tackles and two pass breakups in the bowl game.

WR Terence Jeffers: Jeffers, a junior, felt he was underutilized at Connecticut, even though in 2007 he led the Huskies with 44 catches for 582 yards and five touchdowns. Those same numbers would have led Vanderbilt last season.

DE Broderick Stewart: He played well last season. Stewart, a senior, had 29 tackles and tied for the team lead with five sacks and led with 9.5 tackles for loss. But he broke an ankle near the end of last season. If he returns at full speed, the Commodores have a reliable starter. If he's limited, there could be problems.

His time is now

Junior tight end Justin Green is a big target at 6 feet 6 and 235 pounds. Yet he's managed only four career catches. He's had blocking issues, too. Sophomore tight end Brandon Barden was second on the team in receptions last season and junior tight end Austin Monahan is coming back from injury. If Green doesn't make an impression this spring, he won't get much playing time this fall.

The buzz

Vanderbilt is coming off its first bowl appearance in 26 years and posted a bowl victory for the first time since 1955. Improved play at quarterback will be a huge factor in whether the Commodores can keep the momentum going. Consequently, most of the spring focus is on the quarterback competition between senior Mackenzi Adams and sophomore Larry Smith. As a backup to Chris Nickson last season, Adams completed less than 50 percent of his attempts for 882 yards and had more interceptions (eight) than touchdown passes (five). Smith played in just two games, but he shows promise as a passer and had a decent showing in the Music City Bowl victory.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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