Two of a kind: VU backs offer striking similarities

Sunday, August 19, 2007 at 11:57pm

They’re both 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds. They’re both from East Tennessee. They were born in the same year.

They’re even roommates and best friends.

In every way, there is little to distinguish Vanderbilt tailbacks Cassen Jackson-Garrison and Jeff Jennings, who are slated to handle the bulk of the team’s ball-carrying duties in the 2007 season.

For the Commodores, those similarities, especially on the field, might help them establish a more effective rushing attack and help bring balance to the offense.

“They can both do everything we need them to do,” VU coach Bobby Johnson said. “They’re kind of interchangeable. They each have their little strengths, but there’s not much difference in them.”

Jackson-Garrison, a senior, rushed for 614 yards and five touchdowns last year. Jennings, meanwhile, was shelved for the season while rehabilitating from knee surgery.

With both players back in the fold, Vanderbilt is devising ways to play them in the backfield at the same time this fall, although the Commodores are again expected to operate mostly out of one-back formations.

“We have things in our package that will help us utilize both of them at the same time,” VU running backs coach Kenny Carter said. “It’s gives us more variety and it gives you a fresher back more often when you have two guys that are the same in terms of execution and what you’re trying to do.”

Jackson-Garrison and Jennings, a junior, have the experience to understand blocking schemes and how to get involved in the passing game.

Their most vital contributions, however, will be in running the ball.

“As a defense, you have no idea who’s going to get the ball,” Carter said. “It gives us the option to be able to attack the weakest side of the (defensive) front people give us, because it doesn’t matter who carries and it doesn’t matter who blocks.

“They can both do both things. That’s a huge, huge advantage for us.”

Johnson agreed that a two-back set featuring Jackson-Garrison and Jennings might present an additional dilemma for opposing defenses.

“It makes people think a little bit,” Johnson said. “I think they’re better football players this year than they have been. We’re in a good situation.”

Carter offered a word of caution and said the Commodores aren’t likely to rely too heavily on their rushing attack, even with two solid tailbacks.

“This is a great league, and we’re not presumptuous in the thought that we’re going to run the ball against everybody effectively,” Carter said. “Nobody in this league does.

“But we know our scheme and our attitude will give us the opportunity to be successful if we execute.”

If Jackson-Garrison and Jennings do have one difference, it’s in their running style.

Carter describes Jackson-Garrison as a step faster. In 2005, Jackson-Garrison ripped off five rushes of 35 yards or more.

Jennings offers a more bruising style that works well in short-yardage and red-zone situations, areas in which Vanderbilt struggled in his absence last season.

“We’re two different types of backs,” Jackson-Garrison said. “We can do some different things. But your mindset still has to be, ‘You’re the man,’ no matter who’s around or what’s going on. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”

Jackson-Garrison, who was married a year ago, also notes one other difference between him and Jennings.

“I’m married and have a kid on the way,” Jackson-Garrison said with a smile. “I’m a family man. He hasn’t gotten to my level yet.”

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