Dores Up Front Ready for Debut

Miller leads group of experienced and new linemen

by Chad Bishop

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A big facet to Vanderbilt’s new-look offense in 2020 will be the squad’s offensive line.

But beneath the surface of the first depth chart of the season, which head coach Derek Mason unveiled this week, veteran center Grant Miller said what’s on paper can be deceiving.

“I think a lot of it comes down to leadership and the guys that have been here,” Miller said of his position mates. “We’ve had a few guys who have made great sacrifices for the betterment of the team, guys like Drew Birchmeier.

“I think this O-line is a little bit more experienced than some people would like to believe. I have a lot of trust in those guys.”

Miller’s citing of Birchmeier is a storyline to watch when the Commodores visit No. 10 Texas A&M at 6:30 p.m. Saturday on the SEC Network. A fifth-year senior, Birchmeier has spent his Vandy career at defensive tackle where he’s made 54 stops in three seasons.

Birchmeier, who played some offensive line in high school, moved to the offensive front this fall and is slated to split time at left guard with Central Connecticut transfer Connor Mignone. That duo will be flanked to their left by either Brayden Bapst and Ben Cox at left tackle – neither of whom played during the 2019 season.

“I’m excited about where we are on the offensive line,” Mason said. “We got some young guys who are still working their way up or still working their way back from (COVID-19) quarantine. We’ve got a solid 8-9 guys that we’re going to depend on heading into Game One.”

While the left side of the offensive line may appear new and unproven, the right side of the ball has a solid foundation stemming out from Miller’s presence in the middle. The Fort Lauderdale, Florida, product Miller has played 22 games in two active seasons and started seven contests during 2019.

Miller emerged as an offensive leader over the summer by keeping his teammates accountable and competitive in offseason training. He was elected a captain going into the 2020 campaign.

“As a leader and as a football player, (Miller’s) the man. I look at him as an inspiration,” Vanderbilt offensive lineman Julian Hernandez said this summer. “He’s always pushing himself every day, in conditioning he’s always first, he’s got great numbers in the weight room — he may not be the strongest person on the field but he’ll give everything he has and he’ll play with our motto — relentless, tough and intelligent.

“He very much represents the relentlessness and toughness when it comes to offensive line and he knows the playbook like the back of his hand.”

To Miller’s immediate right on the offensive line will be Dan Dawkins, a Staten Island, New York, product who played 12 games in 2019 and made two starts. Tyler Steen has taken hold over the right tackle spot after starting all 12 games at that position in 2019.

Vandy’s quintet up front, regardless of experience, will all be working in a new attack for first-year Vanderbilt offensive coordinator Todd Fitch and will all be under the direction of first-year offensive line coach Pete Rossomando. Miller said he’s confident in what that offensive attack will be able to do and much of that confidence stems from his teammates’ willingness to work.

“Things are a lot more dynamic,” Miller said. “Communication has to be a lot more quicker, it has to be a lot clearer. Guys need to be on the same page.

“But these guys are guys that work hard. I’ve been very impressed with the young guys and the older guys. These guys are very driven. The young guys – my hat’s off to them. They’ve been working really hard and they’ve picked up the playbook really fast.”

Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for Follow him @MrChadBishop.