One of the persistently annoying things about Vanderbilt football is that when Vanderbilt loses a bunch of starters, the players stepping up to replace them are assumed to be not very good.
Vanderbilt’s offensive line is perhaps ground zero for this in 2019. Read just about any preseason publication, and you’ll learn that Vanderbilt has to replace three starters on the offensive line — which is obviously a bad thing, but other teams returning two starters up front are not assumed to have a big drop off. That’s where the second assumption comes into play: Vanderbilt will probably just fill in with bad replacements for the departed players.
Now, here’s where we get to fact-checking. It’s true that the Commodores lose Justin Skule and Bruno Reagan, two anchors for the offensive line over the last three years. They also lose Egidio DellaRipa, who started five games in 2018. So the “three starters lost” thing means that you count DellaRipa as a starter instead of Saige Young, who started for most of the season before getting hurt.
In addition to Young, the Commodores return four other players on the line who started at least one game in 2018 — granted two of those started exactly one game. They have ten offensive linemen who are at least 300 pounds, and this seems to be an area where Vanderbilt has recruited and developed reasonably well (see, for instance, Skule and Reagan.) This could be a better unit than advertised.
Devin Cochran, redshirt junior: Okay, there’s no question mark here. The 6’7”, 318-pound Cochran started all 13 games at right tackle in 2018 and will probably move to left tackle to replace Skule. This one isn’t in doubt.
Cole Clemens, junior: The rare offensive lineman who didn’t take a redshirt year, the 6’6”, 320-pound Clemens played in five games in 2017 before starting 12 games at both guard spots in 2018. Clemens can be penciled in to start this year, though where is an open question: his placement at guard seemed to have to do with the presence of Skule and Cochran, because he has the frame to play tackle and could easily slot into the right tackle spot likely vacated by Cochran.
Saige Young, senior: The 6’4”, 305-pound Young has been a starter at guard for most of the last two years, though a late-season injury forced him out of the lineup for part of 2018. Still, he seems like a heavy favorite to start at one of the guard spots in 2019.
Bryce Bailey, redshirt sophomore: This is just guesswork, but of the non-obvious choices, Bailey figures to be the most likely to grab a starting job, likely at guard. The 6’5”, 305-pound Bailey played in ten games last season and started at Kentucky. Pencil him in here with Clemens moving to tackle.
The Center Competition
Sean McMoore, redshirt junior: Center is probably the most open question mark on the line, and any of the candidates here could also slot into one of the guard spots if needed. The 6’4”, 292-pound McMoore, who started at Georgia last year, is probably the favorite — though you sort of wonder why he wasn’t able to work his way in to the lineup before now.
Dan Dawkins, redshirt freshman: The 6’3”, 305-pound Dawkins was at one point considered the #1 center prospect in the country by Rivals, which makes you wonder why he wasn’t able to find his way on to the field in 2018, especially with the new redshirt rule in place. Still, he’ll be a candidate to start at center this season.
Grant Miller, redshirt sophomore: The 6’4”, 295-pound Miller was a depth guy who appeared in 12 games in 2018 and like several others has the opportunity to start this year, either at center or guard.
Jonathan Stewart, redshirt sophomore: I might be underselling the 6’7”, 326-pound Stewart — who’s certainly big enough to play offensive tackle. But to this point, he’s appeared in one game in his career and seems to be well behind Cochran and Clemens. There’s a possibility that Clemens could stay at guard if Stewart forces the issue, but that doesn’t seem to be the most likely option.
Tyler Steen, sophomore(?): The 6’5”, 305-pound Steen is listed as a sophomore in spite of appearing in just four games in 2018 — which should make him a redshirt freshman. Anyway, he’s on the offensive line after spending 2018 on the defensive line; a lot of analysts liked him on the offensive side of the ball before he enrolled at Vanderbilt.
Carlton Lorenz, redshirt junior: The 6’4”, 290-pound Lorenz arrived as a JUCO transfer last year and didn’t see action. I don’t really know much else.
Jonah Buchanan, redshirt sophomore: After not playing at all on the defensive line for two years, Buchanan moves to the offensive line — where, at 6’4” and 285 pounds, he might still have trouble finding his way onto the field.
Rowan Godwin, graduate student: The South Alabama graduate transfer has decent size at 6’4” and 305 pounds. On the other hand, he was a part-time starter at South Alabama. It’s frankly hard to see a part-time starter in the Sun Belt being an impact player in the SEC.
Julian Hernandez, freshman: At 6’4” and 300 pounds, Hernandez is likely the most ready to play of the three freshman offensive linemen — which isn’t saying much, and a redshirt year seems very likely.
Donald Fitzgerald, freshman: At 6’8” and 300 pounds, Fitzgerald certainly passes the look test. On the other hand, he’s played exactly one year of organized football. A redshirt seems like a near certainty.
Brayden Bapst, freshman: Where Fitzgerald needs a redshirt year to learn the game, Bapst — a high school tight end who checks in at 6’6” and 270 pounds — will need a redshirt year to add 30 pounds or so before he can handle SEC defensive lineman. I expect all three true freshmen on the line to redshirt.