Vandy looking to protect QB, give him time to work
The Commodores had a bye week to work on protecting their battered quarterback, and coach James Franklin's assistants worked on a new game plan: recruit some more linemen.
Apparently, the players who can best protect quarterback Larry Smith aren't on the team yet, and that's not good.
The Commodores (3-1, 0-1 Southeastern Conference), who visit No. 2 Alabama on Saturday night, have given up 16 sacks - which ranks them 116th out of 120 FBS teams. When asked about improving protection, Franklin had a quick answer.
''We went out and recruited,'' Franklin said Monday. ''The best thing we can do for this program is recruit.''
Until help arrives, Franklin said he and his coaches have studied film of the 21-3 loss to South Carolina on Sept. 24 when the Commodores gave up six sacks, and they plan to do some things to help out the line. Smith was knocked out of that game, though he had the bye week to rest up and is expected to play against Alabama.
Franklin has promised some tweaks to the offense and the offensive line, not that he's sharing any details before visiting Alabama (5-0, 2-0).
''We have some challenges up front,'' Franklin said. ''Now going back and watching South Carolina again, that's a very good defensive line. But we're going to face great defensive lines all year long. So I know coach (Herb) Hand and I know coach (John) Donovan and myself, we looked at some things we're going to try to do some things to help those guys out. We've just got to continue to get better.''
Generating offense with the quarterback under constant duress meant for an ugly offensive performance. Against South Carolina, the Commodores had only one more first down on offense (five) than the interceptions (four) they got on defense.
Vanderbilt has had some changes on the offensive line. Wesley Johnson is at center after being an SEC All-Freshman pick at left tackle last season, and Kyle Fischer slid over from right guard to right tackle. Ryan Seymour went from right tackle to left tackle, and left guard Jabo Burrow's career ended after the opener due to concussion symptoms.
Johnson said the offensive line just needs to execute better after reviewing the first four games this season, including a 24-21 win over Connecticut where they gave up seven sacks.
''We were on the same page against South Carolina,'' Johnson said. ''We were just making stupid mistakes. That's really what we've got to focus on more than anything, getting back to basics.''
The Commodores have shown a willingness to try almost anything that could work on offense under Franklin. A tweak on the Statue of Liberty, halfback passes to the quarterback, some wildcat with Zac Stacy under center and even senior cornerback Casey Hayward getting a couple carries.
Smith, the Alabama player of the year as a senior at Prattville, started the past two seasons. He has looked much better this year after working with Franklin, offensive coordinator Donovan and quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne. Vanderbilt is averaging 25.5 points per game, 81st in the NCAA, but a big jump from 2010 when the Commodores averaged 16.9 points.
Alabama coach Nick Saban said Smith is doing a good job of directing the offense.
''He gets them in the right play. He does a really good job of executing. He's really improved as a passer, even though they throw a whole lot of screens and bubble passes, things that complement the running game that they have,'' Saban said.
It's just tough on a quarterback who keeps getting hit and sacked. Luckily, Smith has proven to be tough and can run. Smith has run for two touchdowns so far. Alabama linebacker Nico Johnson said Smith is real fast and that the Tide likely will try to defend him the way they corralled Florida's Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps last week.
''We're going to have to try to contain him and keep him in the pocket and try to squeeze that pocket on him,'' the linebacker said. ''We're going to work hard all week and get after him.''
The Commodores know this could be their toughest challenge. The man who hands Smith the ball on each play said they will be ready.
''They're pretty good across the board,'' Wesley Johnson said. ''It's really us lining up across from them and going toe to toe with them and playing hard.''
AP Sports Writer John Zenor in Tuscaloosa, Ala., contributed to this report.
Follow Teresa M. Walker on Twitter at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker