When Vanderbilt’s preseason football roster was assembled, the number of seniors (21) was second only to the number of sophomores (25). It was a breakdown that inspired confidence because it suggested there was a significant amount of experience on the team.
No group, however, has been hit harder by injury.
Senior wide receiver Justin Wheeler sustained a season-ending knee injury in the spring and the hits have kept coming, senior defensive end Steven Stone has missed all four games this season with a foot injury sustained in the preseason; senior safety Ryan Hamilton was lost for the season early in the second game due to a chest injury; and running back Jared Hawkins missed the first two games of his senior season with a foot injury.
“Everybody misses players and has injuries,” coach Bobby Johnson said. “Guys at (every) position have to be ready to step up, learn what they’re doing in practice, perfect it in practice and be ready to perform on Saturday.”
With that in mind, the following is a look at how the Commodores have dealt with the injuries to some of their most experienced players.
Free safety – Out: Hamilton, In: Joel Caldwell, senior. (This is the only position on the roster where the starter and the primary backup are both senior.)
The absence of Hamilton, a team captain, was a blow to leadership but Caldwell quickly has moved up to sixth on the team in tackles with 26. He also broke up one pass and forced one fumble, only one other player on the team has done both. Plus, he had an interception negated by a penalty.
“As you get more reps and more experience you naturally get more comfortable because you learn the game speed and you learn what to look at,” Caldwell said.
Wide receiver – Out: Wheeler; In: John Cole, freshman, and Turner Wimberly, junior.
Cole has had injury issues of his own and sat out last Saturday’s loss to Ole Miss one week after his career-best performance against Rice (eight catches, 67 yards). Wimberly was a little-used player who bounced around between several position in previous years and has started to produce the last two games (six receptions, 54 yards).
The offense has not found anyone to replace Wheeler’s size (6-1, 180) or his downfield blocking in the run game. Plus, quarterback Larry Smith has not fund a reliable target at any of the spots in the team’s three-receiver attack.
“We just have to get consistent (with) everybody at (wide receiver),” Johnson said. “We have some guys playing well one series and then others playing well other series’ and then switching off and not playing well. … We just have to get consistent with the guys we have available at that position.”
Defensive end – Out: Stone; In: Tim Fugger, sophomore and Theron Kadri, junior.
Neither Fugger nor Kadri as big as Stone, the Commodores’ heaviest defensive lineman at 267 pounds, which might be part of the reason opponents are averaging a half a yard per carry more than they did a year ago (4.3 this fall, 3.8 last season).
The two have formed a reliable tandem who rotate snaps regularly. Kadri, coming off the bench, has more tackles, tackles for losses and sacks than Fugger.
Running back – Out: Hawkins; In: Zac Stacy, freshman, Warren Norman, freshman and Kennard Reeves, junior.
Stacy and Norman made eye-popping debuts when each ran for better than 100 yards in the opener against Western Carolina. Norman since has proved more durable as well as an explosive option in as a kickoff return man.
Still, the running game has been better the last two weeks with Hawkins (21 carries, 115 yards) as a part of the rotation. Provided his injured foot holds up for the rest of the year, the Commodores ought to look more and more to the ground game as they go.