NASHVILLE, Tennessee — One of the areas where the Vanderbilt football team improved a lot in four games was the offensive line play.
A question mark for the Commodores (3-1) before the start of the season has turned into a pleasant surprise so far.
“They see each other better in practice. So they’re playing a little bit more confidently,” said Vanderbilt offensive line coach AJ Blazek. “They see themselves as successful against our starters. Then they see success as a full offensive. And that strengthens that trust. It’s bred by your preparation – whether that’s practice, whether that’s film school. We have kids right now that are really 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 and is looking to continue its solid game against one of the best, if not the best, defensive and defensive fronts in the nation. With 2021 national leader in sacks outside linebacker Will Anderson, the Crimson Tide already has 21 tackles for losses and seven sacks this season — led by Anderson’s two.
But despite the daunting challenge that awaits the Dores up front, Blazek and his unit try to focus on their own game and not their opponent’s abilities.
“It’s really not about who’s going there, whether it was Northern last week or Wake last week,” Blazek said. “I mean, yes, their skills are different, but we have to put (our linemen) in good spots tactically as coaches. They just have to master their technique and master their effort. That’s the biggest thing at the moment. If they can do that, we’ll play with everyone in the SEC.”
Part of Vanderbilt’s early success is due to not only having a set rotation down the offensive line, but also the ability to use experienced plays when starters become unavailable.
Gunnar Hansen (left tackle), Bradley Ashmore (right guard) and Jacob Brammer (right tackle) were mainstays in the starting lineup. Blazek praised Brammer’s veteran mentality and leadership in the O-Line room.
Vandy has also received key contributions from Xavier Castillo and Julian Hernandez, both of whom lost time through injury but were both crucial to the Commodores’ early success. Guards Ben Cox and Gage Pitchford, center Jake Ketschek and tackle Junior Uzebu also made important contributions.
Vanderbilt has conceded just one sack this season (only four teams haven’t conceded one) and surrendered just eight tackles by loss.
Lea said much of that success has to do with understanding the overall offense for the Saturday game plan.
“Plus, we were a lot more disciplined before the snap,” Lea said. “And if you’re disciplined before the snap, you can do things that can keep the pace of the opposing line. You try to use every advantage you have every week that you play so teams can’t just tee off and let it rip.
“We have fewer protection errors because the protection functions are called correctly. That’s just the know-how that comes with two years in the system. (This week) we’re going to try to do whatever we have to do to neutralize that rush (Alabama pass) while also aiming again at getting the ball on the edge and maintaining drives.
Offensively, Vanderbilt averages 217.3 yards per game and 5.79 yards per carry behind the offensive line. In 2021, the Commodores averaged just 123.5 rushing yards per game and allowed 28 sacks.
They’ve also already tumbled for nine touchdowns, one more than in the entire 2021 campaign.
Of course, Vandy’s success in 22 came against competition outside of the conference. Whether it can have that consistent success on offense against the SEC remains to be seen, but the Dores in the trenches believe they have positioned themselves to be successful going forward.
“You’ve seen us rotate seven or eight for the past few weeks,” Blazek said. “In this league and in college football, if you want to be a physical, running-style team that’s going to line up and run football? You’re going to have bumps and bruises and guys week in and week out. Hopefully nothing long-term, but you have to have people willing to go. I think we saw that.”
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
follow him @MrChadBishop.