As Vanderbilt's starting center last season, Bradley Vierling touched the ball on just about every offensive play. As a co-captain, his leadership made even more of an impact on his teammates.
Both Vierling, recently elected a team captain for 2009, and the rest of the Commodores enjoyed a breakout campaign in 2008, but to him, their achievements were one and the same.
"You win as a family, you lose as a family, you work hard as a family," he said. "In the end, we're all family and we all wear the Black and Gold. That's what we want to represent, as team captains all the way down to the youngest guy on the team."
A center to watch
In his first year as a starter, Vierling played all 13 games of Vanderbilt's 7-6 season in 2008 and saw more action than any other offensive lineman. Improved strength and conditioning made him one of the unit's best blockers as the Commodores capped the year by wining the Music City Bowl, their first postseason victory in 53 years.
As a result, Vierling was placed on the watchlist of the 2009 Rimington Trophy, named for former Nebraska great Dave Rimington, and annually given to the most outstanding center in college football. The Pennsylvania native is one of 44 around the country named to the list, six of them coming from the Southeastern Conference.
Robbie Caldwell, Vanderbilt's offensive line coach and assistant head coach, said the recognition was a testament to Vierling's coachability and hard work.
"It's a good honor to even have your name on that list. Certainly Bradley's worthy for everything he's done outside of football and then in football itself, he's continued to improve ever year he's been here," Caldwell said. "Some people thought he was undersized out of college, but he's worked hard and made himself upsized. He's going to do whatever you ask him to do, whatever you teach him to do."
Thanks to 13 starts, coupled with extensive action in his first two seasons as a reserve at guard and center, Vierling has gotten much more comfortable on the field and asserted himself as a leading offensive player for the Commodores.
"I'm at a point where I can really slow things down and see what the defense is going to do before the ball is snapped," Vierling said. "Having that knowledge and the playing experience that I have, it makes everything easier on everybody else because I can alert people, make certain types of calls.
"It's flattering, it's humbling to be put on the list. It just makes me want to work that much harder."
Work that much harder to get to another bowl, that is.
"Individual accolades only mean so much to one person," Vierling said. "Yeah, it gets the Vanderbilt name out there more, but us going to a bowl game is way more important than any other individual accolades could ever be."
Leading by example and words
While Vierling's appointment as a co-captain by his teammates for the second straight season is significant in and of itself, his election last year was even more significant because, at the time, he had yet to make a collegiate start.
"It was because of his leadership skills," Caldwell said. "He's one of the best. He pushes them, he leads them, he makes them do right, the whole bit. He's a coach's dream as far as all that goes."
The Commodores surged to a 5-0 start but languished beginning in mid-October, dropping four straight games, the nadir being a 42-14 drubbing by Florida in Vanderbilt Stadium on Nov. 8. Here, Vierling's leadership abilities came through when needed most.
After the rout, Vierling remained adamant about the team still having a fighting chance to have a winning season, saying `if you go into a game and you think you're going to lose, you might as well not even put the uniform on. Plain and simple.'
Vierling chose to focus on the bright side of that game, that being the Commodore offense controlling the line of scrimmage for two of the team's longest scoring drives of the year, 81 and 87 yards, in the second half. Quarterback Chris Nickson, who had been benched due to injury and ineffective play earlier in the year, came in relief of injured Mackenzi Adams and threw touchdown passes for both scores.
The outcome of that game was no longer in doubt, but the boost in confidence it gave Nickson and the offense was of larger significance.
The Commodores pushed through to bowl eligibility with an emotional 31-24 win over Kentucky the very next game, where they finally took control from the outset after the opposition had scored first in every other game. Nickson had his best game of the season, passing for 155 yards and three touchdowns, and rushing for 118 yards.
The coaching staff was impressed with Vierling's leadership during that trying period in the season.
"We hit a lull in there, couple injuries here and there, couple of bad breaks. It's kind of in Vanderbilt's history to say, `well, here we go again,'" Caldwell said. "But that wasn't going to happen because people like Bradley, especially Bradley, were not going to let it happen. He made sure of that. He was a big leader through that time and that's a pretty special attribute to have on your team."
The outspoken Vierling says he knows when to motivate and when to criticize.
"I know how to lead by example but also vocally well, knowing when to say things and knowing not when to say things," Vierling said. "I think a big part of my leadership is that sometimes a coach will get down on a guy, and I need to be that guy to pick him back up and get him ready to go again. Or sometimes, a coach is all over the guy, telling him all these great things and I need to be there to say, `listen, just because you're doing great right now doesn't mean you need to slack off. Keep getting better, keep working to get better.'"
But it's his effort and work ethic that really command the respect of the Commodores. Vierling is known to be one of the team's most hardworking and committed players on the practice field.
"He leads by actions. He's the first at everything. First in weightlifting, first in drills," Caldwell said. "His is not a show. He does his by actual actions, but he's not afraid to speak so he's an ideal player for you."
Looking for a sequel
For Vierling, the 2008 season cannot, and will not, be an aberration. Not on his watch.
"It's so important for us to use that as just another step in where we're going. That just set the tone for us," he said. "We've always known we were a good team.
"We're just excited about where we are as a team and what we did last year and building on that, because if we come out and have an awful season, last year, to us, I think means just about nothing."
Look no further than one division over in the SEC to understand Vierling's point. Mississippi State had a breakout season of its own in 2007, going 8-5 with a Liberty Bowl victory, its first postseason appearance in seven years. 2008, though was a disaster, as the Bulldogs crashed to a 4-8 record that forced the resignation of coach Sylvester Croom.
That's why Vierling isn't taking a summer vacation.
May is generally a month off after spring practices conclude, but Vierling, fellow co-captain Ryan Hamilton and many other older players hit the weightroom. Most of the team has joined them for the next two months right up until training camp begins in August, and a difficult schedule with no bye weeks begins later that month.
"June and July is when we hit it hard, and hard as we can go until camp starts," Vierling said. "We've got 12 straight games this year, so we've got to be ready to go."
Caldwell thinks Vierling is poised to jump to the elite at his position, the Rimington watchlist honor being an indicator of that.
"I'm really expecting him to be a total package this year," Caldwell said. "It wouldn't surprise me at all if he's not the best center in the SEC, which is quite a compliment to him. If you do that, you're going to be as good as any in the country."
The staff believes Vierling's added bulk will help him be more physical at the point of attack and more consistently finish his blocking assignments. But what does Vierling think he can personally improve on?
"Everything," he said bluntly. "Just because I'm on the watchlist doesn't mean I don't need to work any harder than I've always done. I'm going to work to be the best I can be, and if that means that I've got to run extra sprints or do extra sets in the weightroom, that's what I'm going to do, and I've always done that.
"I think that's why I've been successful is that I try and outwork my competition, because when I'm not working, somebody else is."