Vanderbilt improved in just about every major statistical category in 2003. This season, the Commodores will gladly take improvement in just one -- wins.
"We were improved, but not winning more games doesn't make you feel any better," said coach Bobby Johnson, who has guided the Commodores to a pair of 2–10 seasons in his two years in Nashville. "We are going in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go."
The Commodores did take one significant step forward last year -- they won an SEC game for the first time since the 2000 season. Vanderbilt's 28–17 win over Kentucky in mid-November snapped a 23-game slide in league play and provided some positive reinforcement for a team that had lost four games by 10 points or fewer.
"[Beating Kentucky] was really big," Johnson said. "It was late in the year, and we had missed some opportunities in other games to get a key win. And we played well. That was the thing that was most pleasing. Everybody contributed."
And virtually all of those contributors will return in 2004. The Commodores welcome back a league-high 21 starters -- 10 on offense, 11 on defense -- and the majority of their key reserves.
OffenseJay Cutler quietly has developed into one of the SEC's premier quarterbacks. Known more for his running prowess as a redshirt freshman, Cutler emerged as one of the league's top passers as a sophomore. He ranked second in the SEC in total offense (220.5 yards per game), fifth in passing (195.6 ypg) and improved his completion percentage by nearly 10 points. Cutler's spike in productivity can, in part, be attributed to improved play from the Commodores' receiving corps. Local product Erik Davis emerged as a big-play threat in his first year as a starter, leading the team with 41 catches, 638 yards and eight touchdowns.
Johnson has made it clear his team needs more production from its top two tailbacks, Norval McKenzie and Kwane Doster. The duo combined for 1,124 yards on a 5.6-yard average in 2002 but slumped to 1,025 yards on a 4.1 average last fall.
Vanderbilt returns six linemen who started at least three games last season. Justin Geisinger, a senior who can bench press more than 600 pounds, anchors the group from his left tackle spot.
DefenseJovan Haye arrived on campus in 2001 as a 240-pound linebacker. He is now up to 280 pounds and has found a home as one of the SEC's most feared pass-rushers. Haye recorded a team-high 8.5 sacks last year on his way to second-team All-SEC honors. The Commodores have plenty of options to fill the other three spots on the defensive line -- seven players return who started at least four games in 2003 -- but the staff isn't quite sure how to fit the pieces together.
The linebacking corps returns intact in 2004. Moses Osemwegie started all 12 games and led the SEC with 126 tackles. He will line up at times in the middle but is likely to start once again on the weak side. Otis Washington was a bit inconsistent in his first season as the starter in the middle. Herdley Harrison was steady on the strong side as a sophomore.
Dominique Morris might not be the fastest guy around, but the coaching staff has supreme confidence in the junior cornerback. Lorenzo Parker and Bill Alford, a pair of seniors who combined for 13 starts in 2003, will battle for the starting assignment opposite Morris. Parker was also given a look at receiver during the spring. Andrew Pace (strong) and Kelechi Ohanaja (free) have a firm hold on the two safety spots after starting all 12 games last year.
SpecialistsThe Commodores converted just 3-of-9 field goals 30 yards and out last season and failed to make a kick longer than 38 yards. True freshman Daniel Lee will be expected to take over immediately.
Vanderbilt's new concern is finding a long snapper, a position handled flawlessly by Jason Daniels the past two seasons.
Final AnalysisEvery four or five years, the stars align properly to give Vanderbilt a shot at that elusive winning record. The 2004 season could be one of those years. With basically the entire team back and a relatively soft season-opening schedule, the Commodores could do the unthinkable -- win more than they lose. This team was good enough to win five or six games last season but was undone by poor play in the red zone and an inability to kick field goals and protect the football. Lee could be the answer to the kicking woes; it will be up to Cutler and the rest of the skill players to curtail the turnovers.