Last year, Vanderbilt's offensive line raised more questions coming into the season than any other position on the field. The Commodores boasted a young and inexperienced unit that had been plagued by turnover and instability in the past year. An underwhelming recruiting haul in prior seasons hadn't done much to raise optimism about the team's chances to keep the SEC's overwhelming defenses at bay in the trenches.
In August, that offensive line looked like it would be the team's Achilles heel. By the end of the season, they had paved the way for an All-SEC tailback and helped establish the team's most consistent quarterback since Chris Nickson's sophomore season. Not bad for a few months work.
The development of last season's linemen is one of Vanderbilt's most important themes, but also one of the most overlooked. While the team's skill players deserve plenty of credit for growing into high caliber players at their positions, it was the work that the grunts did at the line of scrimmage that made Vandy's Liberty Bowl appearance possible. There was a definite connection between Jordan Rodgers's emergence at quarterback and the blossoming play of the linemen in front of him. Ryan Seymour, Wesley Johnson, and Kyle Fischer became the team's stabilizing force at the center of the field, providing the team's offense with the time they needed to develop plays.
Seymour and Johnson will return in 2012, and each will be a candidate for All-SEC recognition. The rest of the line around them won't be as stable. Fischer graduated last spring after five solid years as a Commodore. Logan Stewart and Mylon Brown, who each started their fair share of games last year, have both been dismissed from the team. John Jelesky and Andrew Bridges will return after earning starts, but Bridges is only a redshirt sophomore and Jelesky will be playing only his second season on the O-line after converting from defensive tackle in 2011.
Behind them a talented, but less experienced, cadre of players will be competing for playing time. Last season's squad faced plenty of challenges thanks to injuries and other problems. If the same fate falls on this team in 2012, every player on the depth chart will have to contribute. Jake Bernstein, Joe Townsend, Spencer Pulley, Chase White, and Grant Ramsay will all be counted on to neutralize the SEC's toughest defenders. They'll have plenty of help from a young core behind them, too.
Much like in 2011, the 'Dores will almost certainly press some inexperienced players into high-priority roles. Fortunately for Vanderbilt, that competition will come down to some of the most talented recruits to ever come to Nashville. Big prospects like Andrew Jelks, Will Holden, Adam Butler, Kevin McCoy, and Blake Fromang will provide a youth movement that Vandy has never seen before in their offensive line. The team has committed strongly to bringing in big-time players who have the bulk and speed to make an impact in the SEC right away, and that move could pay dividends in James Franklin's second season.
Last season's volatility on the offensive line will give Vanderbilt something to build on in 2012. The team has proven that they can take an unheralded core of players and turn them into a well-oiled machine. While Vanderbilt's line still had their flaws, they were able to develop into a league-average unit last season. That's something that few people could have predicted early in 2011.
That growth through hardship has left the team with plenty of experience despite the graduations and dismissals of key players. Now, the unit is healthier than ever and loaded with young, talented players. In the matter of a few seasons, Offensive Line Coach Herb Hand may end up turning one of Vanderbilt's biggest weaknesses into their biggest strength. That progress will be put to the test next Thursday against South Carolina, and it won't produce a verdict until sometime in January.
Still, if last year is any indication, Vanderbilt fans should buy low on their offensive line. Their stock will only grow as the season goes on.