Bryant Hahnfeldt. Jonathan Krause. Carey Spear. Warren Norman. DJ Moore. Riley Guay. And of course, Brett Upson. The names aforementioned have been consistent and reliable, even game changers for the black and gold. Games can be won or lost based on special teams. Limiting errors and making field goals win games. Let’s take a look at which players will contribute at the specialist positions in 2020.
Harrison Smith, P: One of the most pleasant surprises from the 2019 season came from Harrison Smith’s consistent and accurate production at the punter position. Smith punted in all 12 games during his RS freshman season, averaging 43.0 yards on 77 punts. One of his highlights from a season where he assuredly secured his spot as Vanderbilt’s starting punter moving forward came on Nov. 30 vs Tennessee. Smith downed 5 punts inside the 20 yard line vs the Vols. 5 in one game?! Smith prepped at Brentwood Academy and has an incredible life story, as is chronicled by friend of the Dore Report, Simon Gibbs. Expect a great season from Smith in 2020. (Note: despite playing his RS freshman season in 2019, vucommodores.com lists Harrison as a junior in 2020.)
Pierson Cooke, P: Although Cooke is listed as a punter, he played 9 games in 2019 as a kickoff specialist. With a powerful leg, Cooke could easily continue to take care of kickoffs, ensuring opposing teams can’t return the ball. Cooke will be a junior in 2020. Cooke was the 13th ranked senior punter by Kohl’s Kicking Camp coming out of high school at Cranbrook-Kingswood (Mich.).
Jared Wheatley, P: The former ESPN 3* prospect punter didn’t see any action in 2019. He will be a redshirt freshman and prepped at Porter Ridge (NC).
Javan Rice, PK: Rice came to Vanderbilt with fanfare, ranked as the 12th best kicker by ESPN. He took a redshirt season in 2018 and played in two games in 2019. In the Commodore win over Northern Illinois, Rice started at placekicker, converting a FG from 28 yards and scoring 4 extra points. Now, as a redshirt sophomore, Commodore fans hope Rice has improved his leg strength and is ready to become the team’s go-to kicker.
Oren Milstein, PK: Milstein is a grad-transfer kicking candidate from Columbia University. In the Ivy League, Milstein had an incredible season in 2016, earning unanimous First Team All-Ivy League honors as a freshman. He also had a solid year in 2017 before missing the 2018 campaign with injuries and not seeing the field in 2019. The question is whether Milstein can regain his confidence and composure from incredible seasons in 2016 and 2017 to secure his spot as Vandy’s starting place-kicker. Read more specific details about Milstein’s career here.
Wes Farley, K: The kicker prospect didn’t see action during his freshman season of 2019. Listed as a junior on vucommodores.com, Farley didn’t play football in high school (New Canaan, Conn.) but was a 3 year starter for his high school soccer squad.
Zach Drevno, SN: The rising junior snapper has only seen action in one game during his career, playing vs UNLV in 2019.
Scott Meyer, SN: Meyer was a grad transfer from Alabama, where he was the team’s primary snapper during the 2017 national championship season. In 2019 he started all 12 games as Vanderbilt’s snapper on punts and conversions. If there’s still eligibility left, which I doubt, look for Meyer to start this season as well since he is listed on the vucommodores 2020 roster.
Wesley Schilling, SN: Earning a scholarship in the incoming recruiting class of 2020, Schilling prepped at Pearl-Cohn in Nashville. He is a five-star specialist prospect by Kohl’s and won snapping competitions at Kohl’s National Kicking Underclassman Challenge and Midwest Challenge. Started for four years at Pearl-Cohn. Went to the Tennessee 3A State Title game as a senior with a 14-1 overall record on the year. It looks as though the long snapper position will be in good hands if Meyer is indeed out of eligibility.
Kick/Punt Return Candidates:
With kick returns becoming fewer and fewer, more expectations seem to be placed on punt returners with speed and sure hands. At the PR position, I expect to see Cam Johnson, speedy and athletic newcomer Donovan Kaufman, Ja’Veon Marlow or Tyrell Alexander. At the KR position, look for any of the aforementioned names as well as Devin Boddie Jr., JR Tran-Reno, Jamauri Wakefield or Jayden Harrison. If newcomers Rocko Griffin and Will Sheppard flash in camp, they could find opportunity as well.
With Riley Guay gone, it’s imperative that Javan Rice or Oren Milstein step in with consistency, confidence and power at the PK position. That will be an important battle to watch during fall camp. Talented and accurate Harrison Smith has the punter position locked down for the remainder of his Vandy career. The snapper position should see a battle between Zach Drevno, with one game of experience collegiately, versus talented newcomer Wesley Schilling. Whoever wins the PR and KR positions should provide solid athleticism and hands to allow Vandy comfort, and even explosiveness, at those positions.