NASHVILLE, Tenn. — One of the areas of great improvement through four games for the Vanderbilt football team has been the play of the offensive line.
A question mark for the Commodores (3-1) coming into the season has turned into a pleasant surprise thus far.
“They see themselves better at practice. So it makes you play a little bit more confident,” Vanderbilt offensive line coach AJ Blazek said. “They see themselves have success against our starters. Then they see success as a full offense. And that shores up that confidence. It’s bred through your preparation – whether that’s practice, whether that’s film study. We got kids right now that are really falling in line with (head) coach (Clark) Lea and our plan here.”
Vandy’s offensive line goes into this week’s matchup at No. 2 Alabama looking to continue its solid play against one of the nation’s top, if not the best, defenses and defensive fronts. Featuring the 2021 national leader in sacks in outside linebacker Will Anderson, the Crimson Tide already has 21 tackles for loss this season and seven sacks – led by Anderson’s two.
But despite the daunting challenge that awaits the Dores up front, Blazek and his unit are trying to remain focused on its own play and not what the prowess of the opponent.
“It’s really not about who lines up there, whether it was Northern last week or Wake the week before,” Blazek said. “I mean, yeah, their skill sets are different, but we have to put (our linemen) tactically in good spots as coaches. They just have to own their technique and own their effort. That’s the biggest thing right now. If they can do that, we’ll go play with anybody in the SEC.”
Part of Vanderbilt’s early success has been due to not only having a set rotation along the offensive line, but also to have the ability to plug in experienced pieces when the starters have become unavailable.
Gunnar Hansen (left tackle), Bradley Ashmore (right guard) and Jacob Brammer (right tackle) have been mainstays in the starting lineup. Blazek complimented Brammer’s veteran mentality and leadership inside the O-line room.
Vandy has also gotten key contributions from Xavier Castillo and Julian Hernandez, each of whom have missed time with injury, but who have both been crucial to the Commodores’ early success. Guards Ben Cox and Gage Pitchford, center Jake Ketschek and tackle Junior Uzebu have also made key contributions along the way.
Vanderbilt has allowed only one sack this season (only four teams haven’t allowed any) and has surrendered only eight tackles for loss.
Lea said a lot of that success has had to do with the entire offense’s understanding of the game plan on Saturdays.
“We’ve also been way more disciplined pre-snap,” Lea said. “And when you’re disciplined pre-snap you can do things that can hold the tempo of the opposing front. You try to exercise every advantage you have each week that you play so that teams aren’t able just to tee off and let it rip.
“We have fewer protection errors because the protections are being called correctly. That is just the expertise that comes with being in the system for two years. (This week) we’ll look to do everything we need to do to neutralize that (Alabama pass) rush while also, again, having the goal to get the ball out on the perimeter and sustain drives.”
Offensively, Vanderbilt is averaging 217.3 rushing yards per game and 5.79 yards per carry behind the offensive line. In 2021 the Commodores only mustered 123.5 rushing yards per game and allowed 28 sacks.
They also have rushed for nine touchdowns already, one more than they did the entire 2021 campaign.
Of course, all of Vandy’s success in ’22 has come against nonconference competition. Whether it can have that consistent offensive line success against the SEC remains to be seen, but the Dores in the trenches believe they have put themselves in position to have success moving forward.
“You’ve seen us rotating seven or eight the last couple of weeks,” Blazek said. “In this league, and in college football, if you’re going to be a physical, run-style team that’s going to line up and run the football? You’re going to have bumps and bruises and guys week-to-week. Hopefully nothing long term, but you’ve got to have guys ready to go. I think we’ve seen that.”
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.