Big part of VU offense will have to stand tall

Thursday, August 27, 2009 at 11:50pm

A big part of Vanderbilt’s offense this fall will come from formations with three wide receivers.

Make that a ‘significant’ part because ‘big’ is not exactly the proper word when talking about the Commodores’ pass catchers, particularly the ones who figure to be on the field the most.

“I think the average (height) is about 5-foot-9 between the (top) three,” senior Alex Washington said. “Yes, we’re a pretty short core.”

Washington actually is listed at 5-foot-10, 188 pounds. The other two top receivers are John Cole (5-11, 170) and Udom Umoh (6-0, 172). Not far down the depth chart are Tray Herndon (6-0, 180) and Chris Reinert (5-9, 172).

In terms of height and weight, that group does not exactly measure up to LSU’s Brandon Lafell (6-3, 209), who had 63 receptions for 929 yards last season, Alabama’s Julio Jones (6-4, 211), who fell 76 yards short of 1,000 as a freshman in 2008, or Geogia’s A.J. Green (6-4, 207).

“I think getting open is getting open,” coach Bobby Johnson said. “I think the only time there is a disadvantage is when you have press coverage and you throw a ball …and you have to get up and battle a tall cornerback. But there aren’t a lot of tall corners in the conference either.”

Then again, it’s not as if VU’s current receivers have giant shoes to fill. Not in terms of production, at least.

Sean Walker was the Commodores’ leading receiver in 2008 with 36 receptions and 520 yards. Jamie Graham, now a defensive back, was next with 28 catches for 209 yards. The rest of the wideouts — not counting D.J. Moore — combined for 34 receptions.

Vanderbilt was last in the SEC (112th nationally) in passing offense last season, and no Commodore was among the conference’s top 10 in receptions or receiving yards.

George Smith, however, provided a significant amount of leadership. Last season was his sixth at Vanderbilt and his recovery from a life-threatening illness a couple years made clear that his dedication was beyond dispute.

Justin Wheeler set career-highs for receptions (16) and receiving yards (145) but his blocking in the run game is what really distinguished him.

Smith, who was 6-3, 202, and Walker (6-0, 178) graduated, and Wheeler (6-1 180) sustained a season-ending knee injury during spring workouts, which meant the workload for this fall fell to that consistently short group.

“When you’re trying to look over the linemen, sometimes it makes it a little more difficult finding people over the middle (if the receiver is short),” quarterback Mackenzi Adams said. “But they also do other stuff — they might run routes better than tall guys and get open a little better.

“The person, I think, has a knack for getting open. It doesn’t really depend on the height as much as football skills and football smarts.”

Vanderbilt figures it has enough of those latter traits in its current group to overcome whatever ‘shortcomings’ its members might have. In fact, the Commodores are so confident they plan on having three receivers on the field often this fall — even if none of them are as tall as 6-foot.

“That’s the majority of the package,” Washington said. “You’ll see a few two-receiver sets but for the most part our offense is geared to the three-receiver set.”


• Running back Jared Hawkins rested his sore foot again Thursday after three straight days of work.

Linebacker Chris Marve sat out with a sore ankle. He injured the ankle Tuesday, but practiced Wednesday. Guard/tackle Reilly Lauer was out with a sore elbow.

Defensive ends Steven Stone (foot) and Josh Jelesky (back) and safety Jay Fullam (hand) remained sidelined.

• Starting defensive tackle Adam Smotherman missed Thursday’s workout because of a lab, which will be an issue throughout the season.

Johnson said he did not consider it a major concern.

“We don’t practice near as long on Thursday during game weeks … and by the time Thursday gets here we have the gameplan in pretty good anyway,” he said.

• With his team facing 12 games in 12 weeks beginning Sept. 5 against Western Carolina, Johnson views this Saturday as the Commodores’ bye week.

They will practice in the morning, but it will not be a challenging one.

“We’ll go over our pre-game warm-ups and locker room discipline, but we’ll move around too,” Johnson said. “You don’t want to go out there and run them like you’re playing a game because this is our off week. This is the only one we have.”