Heading into preseason camp, Vanderbilt’s offensive line arguably posed the biggest question marks.
The Commodores provided some answers last week in the Southeastern Conference opener, creating holes for a 281-yard rushing performance in a 30-7 win against Ole Miss.
But that was just the beginning. Vanderbilt’s big men face their biggest test when they play No. 12 South Carolina, the defending SEC East champ, at 6 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2) in Columbia, S.C.
“We have to be on point this weekend,” second-year offensive line coach Herb Hand said.
South Carolina’s defensive line has given up big plays, ranking ninth in the league in rushing yards allowed per game (182.3). The Gamecocks (3-0) also have just two sacks.
At the same time, that defensive front oozes with talent just waiting to explode.
Three starters return, including defensive ends Devin Taylor and Melvin Ingram. Taylor, an All-American candidate, is listed at 6-foot-7 and had 7.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hurries last year on his way to All-SEC accolades.
Backing up Ingram is another giant – 6-foot-6 freshman Jadeveon Clowney, who Hand calls a “special talent.” The country’s top high school prospect last year is responsible for both of South Carolina sacks and has three tackles for loss and two quarterback hurries.
“They are very talented and experienced up front,” Hand said. “They have a good mix of guys. They have some guys that are big space-eater guys that are big and powerful guys. They have some guys that are edge rushers, athletic, long guys. They have a lot of length upfront. So they each bring different stuff to the table.”
Fortunately, the Commodores’ offensive line hits the road on the heels of its best game. After allowing seven sacks against Connecticut, it settled in against the Rebels last week and gave up just two first-half sacks.
“We just gelled real well [against Ole Miss],” said center Wesley Johnson, who was named the SEC offensive lineman of the week. “I feel like all five of us played a real good game. We expect to get better each week.”
It was also the second game with redshirt-freshman Chase White adjusting to a new position – in a starting role – at left guard after he was slotted as the backup right guard. White replaced fourth-year junior Jabo Burrow, whose career ended after the season opener due to concussion syndrome concerns.
“The biggest thing with [White] was getting used to working out of a left-side stance instead of a right-stand stance. That is a big deal,” Hand said. “All your footwork is flipped, which is a big deal. It is not as easy as it sounds to move from right side to left side. There are a lot of things that go into it. He’ll continue to get better as we progress through the season.”
Burrow was one of five returning starters from last year’s squad. The lack of experience wasn’t the concern for the offensive line – the lack of depth was. When center Logan Stewart sat out most of fall preseason camp due to an undisclosed injury, Hand and the Commodores had to do some shuffling.
Johnson moved from left tackle to center. Ryan Seymour went from right to left tackle and Fischer shifted from right guard to right tackle. The lone newcomer, sophomore Mylon Brown, filled in at right guard.
Stewart is healthier, playing in his first game last week and Josh Jelesky, a former defensive lineman, and Caleb Welchans have each come off the bench. Plus, two true freshmen – guard Spencer Pulley and center Joe Townsend – have seen their first action.
“I feel comfortable with the guys. I feel good about our depth right now,” Hand said. “The young guys, we are getting to game four. There are no more rookies. There is no acceptable excuse for lack of execution and lack of fundamentals. They know what they need to do. They just got to get it done. We still need to stay healthy but we got guys that are ready to play.”
For now, they seem to be playing well. The 281 rushing yards against Ole Miss was the most against SEC foe in nearly 17 years. It was their fifth-highest rushing game in the three-decade history of Vanderbilt Stadium.
“It all starts with the offensive line,” running back Zac Stacy said. “The more weeks go by, the better they get. All my confidence is in them.”