First off, sorry that things have been so quiet around here. We at AoG like vacations. Thanks for sticking around through the dog days of summer. On the plus side, getting bumped from my flight means I'll have some extra Delta dollars to help get me back to Nashville for more games this fall/winter. On the negative, apparently I can no longer fly without catching pneumonia.
Enough of that, let's move on to Vanderbilt football. When we last left our Returning Starters series, we were looking at the crown jewels of the Vandy offense; running back and tight end. Now we'll look at the guys who will be paramount to the success of either position - the offensive line.
The group of starters that rounded out the season returns to the Commodores fully intact, but that isn't necessarily the blessing it is for most teams. Larry Smith was driven into the turf more times than a broken fencepost in 2010, as Vandy's blocking was easily the worst in the conference thanks to a cadre of young, inexperienced players. Vanderbilt's ineffective offensive could be traced back to the patchwork line that had trouble opening holes for Warren Norman or keeping Smith upright for extended periods.
Despite boasting three All-SEC freshman picks, Vanderbilt's offensive line will face more scrutiny than any position outside of quarterback for the 2011 season. While sophomore Wesley Johnson is primed to become a potential all-conference player, the output of his line-mates will be less consistent. This wouldn't be a major problem if the 'Dores had quality depth behind their returning starters, but Vandy's cupboard is relatively bare when it comes to SEC caliber linemen in 2011.
The group that finished last year's campaign is likely to remain intact in 2011 simply due to the fact that no one else may be ready to take their spots. Aside from the starters, every offensive lineman on the roster is either a freshman or redshirt freshman, with the exception of Welchans and Mylon Brown (R-SO). As a result, experience is a rare commodity on the 'Dores bench. If one of the team's starters is lost to injury, the team will be forced to rely on some talented, but unproven, players.
If the team's five core linemen have grown into a stronger cohesive unit, their starting jobs will be intact - and that will go a long way at keeping Larry Brown entrenched and effective at quarterback. Andrew Bridges is a converted DE who has gained 20 pounds in his time at Vandy but is still undersized and inexperienced. Chase White is a bit bigger at 280 pounds, but a less heralded athlete. Grant Ramsay would have the best shot of the three redshirt players, but a 2010 knee injury will keep the run-blocker from living up to his potential in 2011.
It will be interesting to keep an eye on the development of the team's true freshmen. Jake Bernstein and James Lewis aren't huge guards, but have the size to get by as first-year players. Spencer Pulley, Joe Townsend, and Jose Valedon are a little smaller, but rated similarly to their larger classmates. Thanks to the team's lack of depth, only a few of these players will be redshirted, meaning that at least one or two of Vandy's 2011 recruiting class will earn a second-team slot on the Commodore depth chart.
The offensive line is in great position to make strides, as familiarity and growth should help Vandy's front protect talented players like Smith, Rodgers, Norman, Stacy and Tate better in 2011. However, 2010's performance will have fans scrambling for reasons to be optimistic. A full season of coaching stability should help, but it's tough to predict just how this thin corps of linemen will evolve in the coming season. A single injury to the front five could end up shredding Vanderbilt's season before it begins. While having Welchans available as a sixth man is helpful, it's clear that the 'Dores need help at offensive line - and fast.