September 20, 2010

Three questions: Offense

Vanderbilt improved to 1-2 on the year with a 28-14 win at Ole Miss. The Commodore offense generated 300 yards of total offense including 227 yards rushing with three touchdowns. It marked the first time that Vanderbilt had scored three offensive touchdowns against an Southeastern Conference team since the program's last league win in 2008, when the Commodores defeated Kentucky.

Following each game this season, publishers Chris Lee and Jesse Johnson will present a series of questions to recap both the offensive and defensive performances.

1. What did you make of Larry Smith's performance?

Chris: "While the stat line wasn't great, I thought he played very well on Saturday. His passing line was 9-of-19 for 73 yards, but it could have easily been 12-of-19 for 120 (or more) had some very catchable balls (especially a pair of screen passes to Warren Norman) been caught. I only remember one or two poorly-thrown balls all afternoon, and none that came close to being picked.

"Maybe the best thing I saw from Smith was the ability to dump down to his backs when the rush came, or to throw the ball away if nobody was in the vicinity and he was in danger of being sacked. In that area, he showed a huge, huge improvement from last week.

"I also thought he made good decisions in the running game. Other than perhaps one play--a pitch to Wesley Tate that went for a 5-yard loss--he got rid of the ball at appropriate times and did not put his backs in bad spots.

"With VU never trailing, and up either one or two touchdowns for a good portion of the day, Smith's role was to manage the game. He did that about as well as anyone could ask."

Jesse: "I thought Larry had perhaps his best performance since the Music City Bowl honestly. He did everything to help his team win and nothing to detour the offense. He managed the game well but he also made some plays, even when he didn't make plays. A week after fans and analysts alike were criticizing Smith for holding onto the ball a little too long on some big sacks against LSU, Smith made it a point to get rid of the ball when the play just wasn't there. He also made it a point to make sure that if his receiver couldn't catch the ball, no one could. His three deep passes were a little off, just a little ahead of the intended receivers but the more he shows that, we'll either see opposing defenses have to respect the possibility of the play and play a safety deep or we will start to see some completions for big plays. One or the other is coming if Smith and the Commodores keep trying to push the ball down field.

"Smith also did a pretty good job on hot routes and dump plays to his running backs. He did a tremendous job on Vanderbilt's big 96-yard drive, making good reads and quick decisions. On other possessions, the execution on screen passes could've been better, but there were at least one or two plays where I believe the running backs could've caught the ball. He may still rifle a pass every now and then, but he has shown some improved touch and placement early on this season and I believe that will continue to improve as the offense matures.

"I also felt his decision to keep the ball on the read in the fourth quarter showed more maturity as a decision maker.

"While Smith might not be winning SEC Player of the Week honors anytime soon, he has shown improvement and this game could be a positive step towards further improvement for the future."

2. How much progress did the offensive line show on Saturday?

Chris: "I thought it was a big step in the right direction. Execution was a bit inconsistent, but considering that most people think Ole Miss has several NFL-caliber defensive linemen, playing that bunch on the road on a very hot day with a unit that's still relatively inexperienced, it wasn't a bad day.

"I think that the biggest thing is that there were times where the line opened some huge, huge creases that we didn't see a week ago. Given the talents of Norman and Zac Stacy, opening big running lanes a handful of times may be good enough on many Saturdays. Sure enough, each took advantage of an enormous hole to break off a long touchdown run. And Smith could have almost driven a tractor through his opening on the game's last scoring run.

"Other than the big plays, there just wasn't a lot of room to run, but again, creating the opportunity for a few big plays may be good enough considering the talent at running back, and the fact that the defense is solid.

"I remain a bit concerned about pass-blocking; I thought Smith had to run for his life more times than I would have liked. But, it's obvious that the staff has worked to get more safety valves for Smith when this happens, and seems to have emphasized the need to get rid of the ball if nothing's developing. That will do a lot to mitigate what is an obvious weakness, and to also reduce the chance of Smith being injured."

Jesse: "I felt like the progress was substantial. Aside from the first quarter where honestly the offense was sabotaged with bad field position twice by block in the back penalties on punt returns, the line had little problems protecting the quarter or providing running lanes for Vanderbilt's tailbacks.

"Like we saw near the end of the LSU game, the move of Caleb Welchans to guard seemed to play dividends and each of the three guards: Welchans, Kyle Fischer and Jabo Burrow, seemed to step up their games. There was a little miscommunication still at the start of the game, but the unit looked cohesive, while using just six players, throughout the majority of the contest. The pulling was very adequate, the squeeze and push by getting their pads under the Rebels big defensive tackles, allowed for gaping holes and produced lanes that anyone could run through, much less VU's quick backs like Warren Norman and Zac Stacy.

"I also saw a few solid cut blocks and punches in pass blocking that gave Smith and the skill position players a little more time to operate than it did last week. Wesley Johnson and Ryan Seymour, seemed to keep the Rebels pass rushers in check for the majority of the game and even looked to have a few pancakes.

"The group also held up under the heat, with very little rotation. Despite Coach Caldwell saying that true freshmen James Kittredge and Logan Stewart were going to play leading up to the game, neither actually appeared and VU stuck to a six-man line for the entirety of the game. I think the group has to be commended for that.

"Bottom line, progress was made. Might not have produced a 450 yard game, but it was enough to win and generate three touchdowns, something that's been rare for a Vandy offense against SEC competition during the past year. I said before the season that this group has the rare opportunity of improving as the season goes on, and while this game may have only been baby steps towards that, it was still positive to see."

3. What should Wesley Tate's role be going forward?

Chris: "I'm not entirely certain, because Tate's been hurt so much throughout his career that it's hard to tell what the upside is there. I know he's got terrific 100-meter speed, but that doesn't always translate to play-making ability. He fell behind the other backs so quickly when he arrived at VU that he just didn't get the practice reps for me to get a handle on what he can do, and injuries at the start of this year's practice sessions killed his chances to show much this August as well.

"So far, it's been in short-yardage, and I think he's looked capable in that role. My guess is that, for now, that's where he belongs. People can argue for a larger role for him--and that may be fair--but if you give him 10 or more touches every week, it's going to cut significantly into Norman or Stacy's touches, and I'm not sure you want to do that. And though he's almost an afterthought, I think you want to get Kennard Reeves a few touches every week as well.

"My guess is that you'll see maybe 3-6 carries from Tate week-in and week-out, with most coming in short-yardage and goal-line situations."

Jesse: "The healthier Tate gets, the more carries he should get. Also, the more he should be involved in the passing game. Until the Ole Miss game, most of Tate's action had been relegated to short-yardage, almost fullback like play. However, against Ole Miss in the second half, we saw Tate lined up at tailback and saw him gain about 38 yards from scrimmage while the Rebels defense was keying on the run. He showed some of his cutting ability on a 13 yard for a first down and showed some power on a seven-yard run. This all while he is still basically at only 80-percent due to his foot injury.

"The Vanderbilt coaches know he's another play-maker for the offense and the healthier he gets, the more he will be used. Don't be surprised if he gets about 10-11 carries and has the ball thrown to him 3-4 times a game when completely healthy. Though Warren Norman, Zac Stacy and even Kennard Reeves have proven to be solid backs, even game-breakers in some cases, Tate also has the ability to rack up big chunks of yardage and give Vanderbilt a sort of change-of-pace.

"Some may wonder how you spread the ball around, but If Vanderbilt has all four running backs generating first downs, it'll mean longer possessions, more plays and more carries for all in the group. It also keeps the backs fresh and allows for Norman or Stacy to break off long runs like we've seen during the first three weeks of the season. I can't remember the last time where Vanderbilt's had running backs account for four plays of 33 yards or more against three BCS teams, but that's what we've seen so far this year. Just imagine what they could do with fresh legs."

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