NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Vanderbilt began its initial preparations for Miami (Ohio) on Saturday during the program's second full length scrimmage inside Vanderbilt Stadium.
The Commodores used the early stages of the dressed practice session to prepare for the Redhawks. Scripting several plays in the red zone, the Vanderbilt coaching staff used several packages to try to mimic what they believe the Mid-American team will do when the two meet on August 28th.
"We started to work a little bit of stuff on Miami of Ohio. We ran a scripted practice at the first of the practice to make sure our guys were seeing some of the offense and defensive stuff that they do," said Vanderbilt head coach Bobby Johnson after the day's action.
"We're just beginning that. It's just like showing somebody a new defense or a new offense, we're going to have to work on that, and try to get as good as we can on what we suspect we'll see. They might give us something totally different, so you never know. We've got to be prepared for everything."
The coaches also used the scrimmage to take another look at some of the team's least experienced players. Senior Jeff Jennings and junior Jared Hawkins either played sparingly, or in Hawkins case, didn't play at all as the staff wanted to take an extended look at redshirt sophomores Gaston Miller and Kennard Reeves. The staff also gave a few of the younger Commodore receivers such as redshirt freshmen Jamie Graham and Udom Umoh as well as true freshman, John Cole, an opportunity for more snaps.
"We just wanted to get a look at people and see how they reacted under pressure," Johnson said. "Just like you normally do on a Saturday scrimmage, just see who's going to step up and make plays and try to execute the offense and defense.
"We also worked on special teams and that was a big thing for us. Hopefully, the emphasis we've put on special teams this year will help us out."
Miller and Reeves gain ground
Of the many young players that got extended snaps during the scrimmage portion of the practice, Gaston Miller and Kennard Reeves had perhaps the most impressive day on offense.
Miller, who redshirted last season after seeing action during his true freshman year, gained 73 yards and scored two touchdowns on 15 carries.
Reeves, who was the Commodores fourth-string tailback for most of the 2007 season, gained 42 yards on six carries and also caught a 14-yard pass.
"It was good to see those two step up and make some plays in the running game today," Coach Johnson noted. "There was pretty good blocking, but they ran hard. I think that will give us some people we can go to all during the season, keep some fresh guys in there. We're not afraid to put anybody in there now.
"Kennard's got to get a little bit more consistant on everything he does, including things he's supposed to do when he's not running the ball. That's what he's got to improve on, but he's running well.
"Gaston's done well and I think he's starting to feel where he needs to be in the offense and what he needs to do and reading blocks a whole lot better. I think Coach Kitchings has done a good job of settling him down and getting him to do the right things. We expect him to get better and better as the year goes on.
Redshirt freshman Ryan van Rensburg, who was one of the leading rushers during last week's scrimmage, played only one series during Saturday, but will also likely see the field in 2008.
"I think they'll all have a chance to see action this year," said Coach Johnson.
Freshmen stepping up
With the extended snaps, several true freshman were able to contribute on the day and provided some key highlights.
Linebacker DeAndre Jones provided the defenses lone turnover on the day when he picked off a deflected Chris Nickson pass and ran down the field for a near touchdown. Safety Sean Richardson made several tackles during a portion of the scrimmage, providing some solid hits and pumping up his teammates along the sideline. Emerging defensive tackles Rob Lohr and Colt Nichter also provided big plays along the defensive line and cornerback Casey Hayward capped a brilliant week of practice with a few pass deflections.
Offensively, John Cole led all receivers with 61 yards on just three receptions. The Kentucky record holder hooked up with Nickson to provide the biggest offensive play of the scrimmage, catching a 40-yard pass from the senior signal caller.
"We'll start trying to decide who's going to be on the travel squad, who's got a chance to help us and who's going to benefit from a redshirt year," Coach Johnson said. "That's no different from any year really, but it looks like we've got some pretty good choices that we can make."
Other freshmen that have impressed during the first two and a half weeks of camp include linebacker Tristan Strong, defensive tackle Ryan Seymour, defensive ends Josh Jelesky and John Burrow and receiver Akeem Dunham.
Nickson pleased with practice
Senior Chris Nickson continues to battle with junior Mackenzi Adams and inexperience players Jared Funk and Larry Smith for the starting quarterback job.
On the day, the Alabama native was officially 3-of-5 passing for 72 yards and a 18-yard touchdown pass to Chris Reinert. He also generated 22 yards on the ground with five carries.
Nickson said after the practice that the day was a success and just a part of the daily goal, to improve every day.
"I think today, one of the big things we did was we got a lot of combinations of guys in," said Nickson. "It's helping us because we're trying to find the right people for the right spots. I think today was a big plus in trying to accomplish that. It was interesting, an interesting day.
"We're getting better every day. I mean, obviously, we came out here a lot better than we scrimmaged last week. I feel guys were a lot more comfortable in the offense, especially the younger players. It just takes time, it takes time for them to evolve as players and it's obvious that we're getting better. Every day, we're getting better every day. That's our goal."
Nickson noted that trying to find the right combination has made things difficult at times, but believes it will make the offense stronger in the end.
"It's quite difficult sometimes actually, because you know, I'm used to just seeing familiar faces. Every time you step in the huddle, it's possible to that you'll see a different combination that you haven't seen yet. It's different, but you welcome it cause you know that we're trying to establish something here. We're just trying to find the best five front and the best four to put out at receiver and the best two at tight, and the best quarterback we can have. It's just an interesting situation."
Nickson also said that probably the most significant area of need for the team is to find the right chemistry. When asked, he also said that his personal goal is to be a leader on the field.
"I think for the team, it's basically chemistry. We've got a lot of issues as far as trying to figure out who we're going to play. We just want to establish that chemistry with each other as players and as teammates to know what you are going to do out there on game day. I think that's the biggest thing for the team.
"As for me, it's just to establish some leadership," Nickson said. "It's kind of difficult with the situation that I'm in right now, to establish the leadership that I would like to establish for my teammates and my coaches. I think that's one of the most difficult things, so I'm just trying to come out here and be consistent, playing hard, be a leader on that field and build that chemistry with my players. Just build some leadership to be able to follow."
The Commodore staff has yet to name a starter for the Miami contest and Coach Johnson indicated after the scrimmage that the competition was ongoing.
"I think they're all doing some good things. We've just got to quit making that one or two mistakes that kills the drive or makes a big play for the defense. I think we've gotten a whole lot better at it from when we started. We've just got to be more consistent."
Dore Jam on Sunday
The team does not practice Sunday, but will participate in Dore Jam 2008, scheduled for 4-6 p.m., at the John Rich Practice Facility. The team's official poster will be distributed for player and coach autographs at the free event. The team is also scheduled to introduce new Nike uniforms at the popular annual event.