Smith, Vanderbilt offense need to step up

Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Now that Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson has settled on sophomore Larry Smith as his starting quarterback for Saturday's opener against Western Carolina, there's still the bigger-picture question regarding the Commodores on offense.

Will they be able to take some of the pressure off the defense this season?

For Vanderbilt to win seven games last season and finish 117th out of 119 FBS teams in total offense is one of those things that just doesn't happen in college football. The Commodores ranked 105th nationally in scoring offense and 112th in passing offense.

Granted, they kept their turnovers down for much of the season. But to get back to a bowl game this season, they have to be more effective and more diverse on offense, which is a big reason Johnson is going with Smith.

"Larry gives us the whole package," Johnson said. "He's got a big-time arm, no doubt about it, and gives us a chance to go down the field. But he's a big guy and can still run."

The Commodores are going to a no-huddle attack, which is similar to what the 6-foot-2, 220-pound Smith ran in high school. Johnson said he won't hesitate to go with senior Mackenzi Adams if things bog down offensively. Adams is also mobile and has been effective each of the last two seasons coming off the bench.

"You've got to have both of those guys ready, and it doesn't mean we'll finish the season with Larry," Johnson said. "He's got to produce and do what we ask him to do. This is just the first game and no different than any other position on the field."

Speaking of the other positions, it's still very much a wait-and-see proposition for the Commodores on offense, even for Johnson.

"We don't know anything right now," Johnson said. "We've got to play and find out and see how good we are and see how some of these younger guys are going to do."

There's growing concern about senior running back Jared Hawkins' surgically repaired foot, which has plagued him most of the preseason. When he's been out there, he's looked good. But it's just been hit and miss.

"When Jared Hawkins is well, we feel like he's as good as anybody in the conference," Johnson said. "But he'll practice well one day and then it gets sore, and we'll have to rest it. We just haven't had had him like we've wanted to."

Johnson said freshman running backs Zac Stacy, Wesley Tate and Warren Norman have all been impressive during preseason camp.

There are a lot of unknowns at receiver, too. The Commodores need big seasons from senior Alex Washington and sophomore Udom Umoh. There's just not a proven go-to guy on the team right now. If redshirt freshman John Cole can stay healthy, he has the speed and the hands to be a difference-maker at receiver.

Even with all five starters back on the offensive line, Johnson has been pleased with some of the competition up front. Most notably, sophomore James Williams has won the starting right tackle job after barely playing a year ago.