Stage Set for Productive Spring

By Tony Lane

Big news for Vanderbilt spring football practices: No name tags required!

The second season of Commodore football essentially opens Feb. 20, and between then and March 22, the tentative date of the Black and Gold game, head coach Bobby Johnson and his staff will have 15 opportunities to work with known quantities.

Last February, the Vanderbilt coaches could barely identify each other, let alone the players on the roster. A hustling recruiting period after Johnson's hiring around Christmas of 2001 had forced the staff to hit the ground running.
A year later, the Commodores know what to expect from their coaches, and vice versa.

"The differences are drastic," said defensive coordinator Bruce Fowler. "First, you know your personnel a whole lot better, and they know us a whole lot better. Second thing is, you have a scheme in place and a starting point that they're familiar with.

"The other thing is, besides having a picture of the things you did well on tape from last season, we also now have a chance to make corrections off the things we did wrong."

For his side of the ball, Fowler's main concerns heading into the spring are finding candidates for safety and the mike linebacker, which Hunter Hillenmeyer manned so proficiently last fall.

Fowler noted that Kelechi Ohanaja, listed as a cornerback last fall as a freshman, would run with the safeties this spring. Sophomore Andrew Pace, the only returnee who saw much action at safety last fall, will be closely observed.

"His burden is going to be increased back there, because he will be the guy that is counted on probably going into the spring," said Fowler.

In Hillenmeyer's stead, Fowler will be watching junior Pat Brunner, sophomore Otis Washington, who sat out last season, and sophomore Paul Meadows.
Dominique Morris, Lorenzo Parker and Cheron Thompson will headline the returning cornerbacks, while Jovan Haye, Matt Clay, Trey Holloway, Aaron Carter, Antoine Morgan and Robert Dinwiddie lead a well-stocked defensive front.

Besides Ohanaja's move, Fowler didn't anticipate any other position changes or philosophical alterations in the defense. Fundamentals are still first - plugging the right hole, organizing nickel and dime packages, even the art of tackling.
"You have to be careful not to overlook the basics," said Fowler. "We still have a lot of work to do on the simplest of things."

Offensive coordinator Ted Cain also has a couple of positional concerns for the spring. Dan Stricker and M.J. Garrett depart the wide receiving corps, and steadfast Jamie Byrum and Jim May graduate off the offensive line.

"It's definitely the time where younger players who were redshirted last year or got just a few reps step up and see who will be the starters, especially at wide receiver and offensive line," said Cain.

At wideout, Cain threw all six returning names out there as possible replacements for Stricker and Garrett. Junior Brandon Smith is the most experienced of the lot, but sophomores Keith Williams, Jason Caldwell, Grant Brigham and Erik Davis can really benefit from a strong spring. Senior Chris Young could be the wild card - his work ethic and robust spirit after being suspended last season excite Cain.

"Really all six returning guys are going to get plenty of reps to see who will be the top two," said Cain.

Cain vowed that the passing game would be a special focus of the spring. He noted that Vandy and Georgia Tech swapped spring-game tapes last summer because both teams were under new ownership. Ole Miss kicks off the 2003 slate, so secrecy won't be so important.

"We'll put a lot of emphasis on throwing the football," said Cain. "We felt like our power running game and our option game was relatively good. But passing the football, we need to do a much better job next fall with that."

Experienced quarterbacks should assist that cause. Sophomore Jay Cutler, senior Benji Walker and redshirt freshman Steven Bright lend Vanderbilt prized depth at the most important position in the game.

"All three of those quarterbacks will get a lot of reps in spring practice. All three of them have the tools to run our offense and do all the phases equally as well," said Cain.

On the offensive line, Jordan Pettit, Steven Brent and Adam Dossett will get hard looks at center in Byrum's stead. Pettit suffered a broken leg in last season's opener against Georgia Tech. According to Cain, the redshirt junior appears almost all the way back, though the staff will ease him into the flow.

The running back position was also sacked by injury last fall. Junior Norval McKenzie and redshirt junior Ronald Hatcher, both felled by broken legs, are ready to battle sophomore Kwane Doster for the starting job. Cain indicated that McKenzie's recovery is a bit ahead of Hatcher's, but both will participate in spring drills.

Redshirt freshmen Brad Anderson and Ron Bulluck will be in the mix for the fullback slot opened by Bara Cola's graduation. Of course, sophomore Matt Tant's flexibility between tailback and fullback will keep him on the field as well.
Cain concluded his summation of the spring in much the same vein as Fowler - elementary principles will be polished first and foremost.

"We are way ahead where we were this time last year," said Cain, "but we're still not to the point in our program where we can jump ahead very far. We will still, early in spring practice, start off with absolute ground zero and bring them along again."

Both coaches recognize the task at hand - returning Vanderbilt to the upper echelon of the SEC - is achieved one incremental step at a time. Spring football is the next step.

"We've got to get a whole lot better, and our goal is to improve and get better every day in what we do," Fowler concluded.



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