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I Wanna SEC You Up: The Vandy Offense

The offense should be a strength this season for Bobby Johnson's Commodores. The ticket selling side of the ball returns the most experience and talent from a unit that wasn't particularly bad last season, but was also not particularly good. A quick look at the numbers shows Vandy somewhere in the middle of the conference offense wise at the end of 2006...

Total Offense 7th
Scoring Offense 10th
Passing Offense 7th
Pass Efficiency 8th
Rushing Offense 4th
Turnover Margin 9th
Red Zone Offense 11th

...but a closer breakdown shows a more favorable picture (with one exception). For example, the 'Dores ran only 722 plays last year, significantly fewer than the rest of the league save Ole Miss, who ran only 702, and still managed an average of 5.8 yards per play, good enough for a tie with 5th placed Kentucky, who ran 847 plays, and just slightly behind Arkansas and Florida, who managed 6.3 ypp while running 841 and 875 plays, respectively. What does that mean? Remember that "with one exception" I mentioned? It's the turnovers. The 'Dores were 9th in Turnover Margin due to losing 14 fumbles and throwing 14 picks, including three of each in the Red Zone (seriously, if your RZ offense was worse than ours, things need to change). If they can figure out how to hold onto the ball a little better they could be just as effective at moving the ball as the upper tiers of the conference. Of course, that will have a lot to do with the maturity and development of the individual players.

The Names
QB Chris Nickson
Nickson returns as the starter after an up and down sophomore year in control of the offense for the first time. His numbers were decent, though unimpressive:
QBRat Comp Att % Yds Y/A Y/G TDs Int
76.1 160 292 54.8 2085 7.1 173.8 15 13
  What was most impressive about Nickson were his rushing numbers. He led all rushers for Vandy with 694 yards on the season (57.8 ypg, 4.0 ypc), and was 9th in the SEC. His rushing and passing yardage made him 4th in the league in total offense, as he produced 2,779 yards on the season and averaged 240.6 ypg. Of the three QBs ahead of him (Andre' Woodson, JaMarcus Russell, and Erik Ainge), only Russell had positive rushing yardage with a, by comparison, paltry 142 yards. Of course, his propensity to "make things happen with his feet" often got him into trouble, resulting in 19 sacks for a loss of 112 yards and numerous fumbles.

Vandy fans should take heart, though, that during the spring game Nickson rushed only once (for a gain of 11) and focused on his passing skills (4-of-6 for 51 yards), leading only two drives that resulted in a FG and a TD.

WR Earl Bennett
Bennett is the legitimate star on this Vandy team. He needs only 48 receptions to become the SEC's career leader and, much like Ga. Tech's Calvin Johnson, Bennett was the best and most consistent offensive weapon available to the Commodores.
Rec RecYds Y/G Avg Long RecTDs
82 1146 95.5 14 77 6
  Bennett led the league in receptions per game, averaging 14 catches per game, and was second in receiving yards per game, averaging 95.5 ypg. He had four games of 150 yards or more, including a 220 yard game at Kentucky. Bennett was such a part of the Vandy offense that, in the two worst losses of the season vs South Carolina and at UT, he was held to only four catches for 16 yards in each game. Since opposing defenses know Bennett is the go to guy for Nickson, another receiver (or two) needs to step up and be the reliable compliment to Bennett.
WR George Smith
Opposite Bennett is fellow Junior George Smith. In ten games last year, Smith caught 21 passes for 313 yds and 3 TDs, and was the third leading receiver behind the departed Marlon White.
Rec RecYds Y/G Avg Long RecTDs
21 313 31.3 14.9 44 3
  Though Smith's numbers aren't nearly as impressive as Bennett's, he proved himself a reliable talent that could easily blossom in a starting role this year. He earned a medical redshirt after missing the 2004 season when he was forced into an extended hospital stay that kept him out of practice and classes, but developed into a key receiver in both 2005 and '06. With two year's experience under his belt, and a QB learning to spread the ball around more, he could be the extra spark Vandy needs in the passing game.
TB Cassen Jackson-Garrison
In the backfield is returning starter Cassen Jackson-Garrison. Jackson-Garrison was the second leading rusher on the team behind QB Nickson, but his pass catching and blocking abilities make him an asset for the Vandy offense:
Rush Yds Y/G Avg TDs
152 614 51.2 4.0 5
Rec RecYds Y/G Avg Long RecTDs
15 104 8.7 6.9 26 1
  While those aren't the most spectacular numbers ever put up by a running back, he was operating in a pass first offense with a mobile QB and splitting time with RB Jared Hawkins, who got 43 carries for 298 yards for an impressive average of 6.9 ypc. Couple that with the return of Jeff Jennings, a part time starter in '05 that sat out last season due to injury who will be key in short yardage situations, and the backfield is starting to look a little crowded in Nashville.
The Unheralded
(at least by everyone but us hopelessly obsessed fans)

Special mention must be made of the Vandy O-line, which returns all five starters, and features two all conference players:

LT Chris Williams
Williams earned All-SEC honors as a coaches' 2nd team pick last year, and he could very well close out his senior year with another All-SEC selection.
RT Brian Stamper
Stamper earned preseason All-SEC honors prior to the 2006 season, but was forced to sit out after five games because of back problems that ultimately required surgery. He was granted a medical redshirt, and looks to return to form this season if he can stay healthy.

As a Bama partisan, looking at facing what will surely be a formidable offense with a young and still learning defense on the road early in the season doesn't make me feel all gooey inside. In fact, the more I read up on Vandy, the more I start thinking that maybe UGA wasn't the best choice for "Who Scares You The Most?" But there is a bright spot for us, and it's called a weak secondary. Tomorrow I'll break down the Vandy defense and see what sort of shot our own offense will have against it.