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March 11, 2008

VANDERBILT COMMODORES
Head coach: Bobby Johnson
Last season: 5-7 overall, 2-6 in SEC.
Spring practice: March 11-April 5. The Black/Gold scrimmage is March 29.

Vanderbilt opens spring practice today. The Commodores haven't been to a bowl since 1982, and unless they get issues solved at quarterback and along both lines, a bowl appearance will be a long shot this season, too. Here's a look at the Commodores as they prepare to open spring drills.

VANDERBILT
Chris Nickson has some work to do if he hopes to keep the starting quarterback job at Vanderbilt.

RETURNING STARTERS
Offense 3: QB Chris Nickson, WR George Smith, WR Sean Walker.
Defense5: FS Ryan Hamilton, SS Reshard Langford, CB Myron Lewis, CB D.J. Moore, E Steven Stone.
Special teams 2 K Bryant Hahnfeldt, P Brett Upson.
EARLY ENROLLEES
None.

POSITIONS OF STRENGTH

The cornerback tandem of Lewis and Moore team with the safety duo of Langford and Hamilton to give Vanderbilt a veteran secondary that returns all four starters from last season. That quartet helped the Commodores rank 18th in the nation in pass defense.

HELP IS NEEDED

Greg Billinger and Adam Smotherman are the only players at defensive tackle with any game experience. Vanderbilt also will have a tough time competing in the SEC if it doesn't get more consistency out of the quarterback position than it received a year ago. The Commodores also must retool their offensive line, which featured five senior starters last season.

KEEP AN EYE ON

WR George Smith: After catching 32 passes for 397 yards and three touchdowns to complement Earl Bennett last season, Smith must develop into a go-to receiver this season. The Commodores are hoping Smith's seven-catch, 94-yard effort in the season finale against Wake Forest represents a sign of things to come.

LB Chris Marve: He probably was good enough to play as a true freshman last year, but there was no sense burning a redshirt year on a guy backing up future NFL linebacker Jonathan Goff. Now that Goff has departed, Marve should inherit a featured role as a redshirt freshman. Don't be surprised if Marve cracks the starting lineup this fall.

DE Steven Stone: He flashed his potential at times last year while lining up on the other side of the line from the more celebrated Curtis Gatewood. As the only returning starter among the front seven on defense, Stone must develop into a quality pass rusher in a hurry. Stone showed that kind of ability while collecting six tackles two for losses and a sack in the regular-season finale against Wake Forest.

THE TIME IS NOW

QB Chris Nickson: He looked like a star in the making two years ago, but Nickson took a giant step backward last season by completing just 52.5 percent of his passes with six touchdowns and five interceptions. By the end of the season, Nickson had been benched in favor of Mackenzi Adams. Nickson has more upside than Adams, but he must regain his consistency to have any chance of living up to the promise he showed in 2006.

THE BUZZ

Vanderbilt earned itself plenty of positive press when offensive lineman Chris Williams, wide receiver Earl Bennett and linebacker Jonathan Goff were invited to the NFL Scouting Combine. Williams almost certainly will get taken in the first round. But the extra attention the Commodores receive this spring won't necessarily help this fall. The losses of Williams, Bennett and Goff leave the Commodores with some giant holes. Vanderbilt will spend this spring trying to fill that leadership void and attempting to sort out its quarterback situation.

Steve Megaree is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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