Vanderbilt’s offensive line predictably struggled in 2020 for a rather obvious reason: the Commodores didn’t field the offensive line they expected to.
Rising senior Devin Cochran, the team’s star tackle in 2019, elected to go to Georgia Tech as a graduate transfer. Then, after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, three players who expected to see significant playing time on the offensive line decided to opt out of the season.
That left the Commodores with a makeshift offensive line for the 2020 season. The good news entering 2021 is that the three opt-outs all return, while some younger players who otherwise might not have seen much action instead got valuable experience heading into 2021.
The offensive line preview is going to be split into two parts because, by my count, Vanderbilt has sixteen offensive linemen on scholarship and that’s a lot for a single preview. I’m splitting it into groups of eight, and today we’ll talk about the guys who I think will either be the starters or in competition for starting spots; but then, that leaves off three guys who I think might be a factor in 2021 for the second preview. There’s no really good way to do this, I guess.
Tyler Steen, redshirt junior: If there was an established player on Vanderbilt’s 2020 offensive line, it was Steen. The 6’5”, 317-pound redshirt junior from Miami started his career with four games on the defensive line in 2018, then moved to the offensive line for 2019 and promptly started all 12 games at right tackle. In 2020, he moved to the other side of the line and started all nine games at left tackle. There is nothing in Steen’s performance over the last two seasons that suggests he should not be a starter in 2021.
Bradley Ashmore, sophomore: Perhaps more relevant than the fact that Ashmore, a 6’6”, 294-pound sophomore from Neptune Beach, Florida, appeared in all nine games as a true freshman in 2020 with five starts, one at left guard and four at right tackle, was that Ashmore was one of the two players that Clark Lea elected to bring with him to SEC Media Days, a nod to the fact that by Lea’s own admission Ashmore was one of the first players in the program to completely buy in. You don’t earn that kind of praise from the coach and then not start, at least, not when you’re a player as talented as Ashmore. Pencil him in as a starter on the line, probably at right tackle opposite Steen.
Cole Clemens, redshirt senior: Clemens was one of the three opt-outs on the offensive line last season, and his loss was a big one — both literally and figuratively. The 6’6”, 344-pound senior from South Jordan, Utah, started 12 games in 2018 and was a starter for most of 2019 as well. While he’s got the size to play tackle, Clemens has seemed more comfortable playing guard, and particularly with Steen and Ashmore available at tackle I would expect Clemens to slot in at one of the guard spots for 2021.
Bryce Bailey, redshirt senior: Yep — another opt-out from 2020. The 6’5”, 306-pound senior from Newburgh, Indiana, started two games at guard in 2019 and, given the amount of flux on the offensive line in 2020, probably would have started more than that had he played. As it was, Vanderbilt was at least down a key reserve from the 2018 and 2019 seasons, and he’s one of a few guys I could see starting at the other guard spot opposite Clemens in 2021.
Julian Hernandez, redshirt sophomore: In the absence of Clemens and Bailey, Hernandez, the 6’4”, 312-pound sophomore from Davie, Florida, notched four starts at left guard — you’ll notice that the guard spots were kind of a revolving door in 2020. That earned him valuable experience in 2021, when he’s in competition for a starting spot at either guard or center, two places where Vanderbilt seems to have a lot of question marks entering the season.
Dan Dawkins, redshirt junior: Once regarded as the top center prospect in the country, Dawkins, a 6’3”, 308-pound junior from Staten Island, has struggled to lock down a consistent role over the last two seasons. He’s started six games over the last two seasons, all at guard. Then again, the center spot is once again open after last year’s starter, Grant Miller, elected to go to Baylor as a graduate transfer — and I would expect Dawkins to compete for the starting job this season.
Jonathan Stewart, redshirt senior: The third opt-out from last season to return for 2021, Stewart seemed to be making strides in 2019, earning three starts after spending his first two years on campus as a guy with good size (6’7”/324) but who didn’t have a great feel for the game. Now, it seems like missing 2020 may have just caused Stewart to get passed: it’s hard to see how he wins a starting job over Steen or Ashmore. But at the very least, he’s valuable to have around as a backup.
Ben Cox, sophomore: I picked Cox to close out the first half of the preview simply to include every returnee who started a game on Vanderbilt’s offensive line in 2020; Cox started at right guard in the Tennessee game, and the 6’5”, 292-pound sophomore from Radford, Virginia, appeared in eight games in 2020. (That Vanderbilt had not one, but two true freshmen getting significant action on the offensive line should have told you that the Commodores were depleted in that area.) He’s another guy who will compete for a starting job on the interior.