Kirchoffer now top of team's heap in strength

Kirchoffer now top of team's heap in strength

Now that Justin Geisinger has moved on to the NFL, there's a new reigning champion in the team's ongoing Strongest Man competition. Who is he? Hints: he wears No. 64, plays left guard, and could be getting his first collegiate start Thursday night. Muscleman Merritt Kirchoffer talks about his strength, and explains why Vandy's 2005 offensive line could be one of its best ever.

In the 13 years Vanderbilt's John Sisk has been coaching strength and conditioning, he's never seen anyone quite as strong as Justin Geisinger. The weight room exploits of the now-graduated Vandy tackle are the stuff of legend. The coaches once stopped Geisinger from bench-pressing more than 600 pounds, saying, "Justin, you've got to stop somewhere."

But the Amazing Geisinger has moved on and is now competing for a roster spot with the Buffalo Bills. With Geis gone, we asked Sisk, who's leading the team in the ongoing competition to replace him as the Team's Strongest Man?

"The top bench-pressing guy right now is [offensive lineman] Merritt Kirchoffer," Sisk said recently. "He's doing about 500 pounds. He's always been a guy who's pretty strong. Over his time here he's just done a great job for us."

Although Kirchoffer may not exceed Geisinger's all-time team record in the bench press, few people may know that the 6-5, 315-pound sophomore from Roswell, Ga. has set his sights squarely on another of Geisinger's records... and just may break it before his time at Vandy is done.

"I lifted 225 pounds 37 times," Kirchoffer said. "Geisinger's record was 43 times. So, I mean, only six more times, and I'll hold that record. That's something I could possibly do in the next year."

His increased strength is also paying benefits on the field, he says.

"[In practice] I've been able to mash some people, and get them up off their feet," he says.

This fall, Kirchoffer has battled for the starting left guard spot with another sophomore, Josh Eames (6-5, 305). Entering fall camp Eames was a slight favorite to win the job but missed several critical days of practice with a hip injury. At this point the race may be too close to call.

In past years, offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell has done very little substituting with his unit, electing mostly to go with his starters until they drop. With the unprecedented depth of this year's line, however, that may be about to change in a big way.

"I think the fact that we have two strong offensive lines is going to make all the difference in the world," says Kirchoffer.

"We can play that first line for a while, and people won't see much difference at all when that second group of linemen comes in. We'll be able to battle it out for an entire game.

"Sometimes last year we used to get tired in the fourth quarter. That's not going to happen any more," he says emphatically.

"It's not going to be fun to watch any more. We're going to kill teams into the third quarter... and then the freshmen, or whoever, are going to play into the fourth quarter."

How important is offensive line depth to a team's success?

"When you have that, you can pretty much expend all that you have, and know that you have someone that can come in behind you and do pretty much the same thing," Kirchoffer continues. "We can push and push and push, and not give at all."

Vanderbilt's young, relatively inexperienced running backs certainly stand to benefit from more cohesive blocking up front. But what about the passing game? With a potential All-SEC candidate returning at quarterback (Jay Cutler), Vanderbilt figures to open up the offense more than in past years. Much of the offense's success may come down to the line's ability to protect Cutler in passing situations.

"We probably will pass a little bit more than usual, and I think we've been looking really good at pass protection," said Kirchoffer, who will protect Cutler's blind side at left guard. "I feel like I've been doing very well in one-on-ones the last few days.

"I really haven't been beaten. I've been working on getting on my hands inside, and I think my bench press has been helping me hold some people out."

A few weeks ago, Robbie Caldwell was quoted in the Nashville City Paper as saying, "During our first couple of years, we only ran a bootleg one way because one guard was good at pulling. We were using the abilities we had. Now, we can expand on that. We can pull out a few more tricks.

"All the guys in this group are agile and run pretty well," the quote continued. "They can do things. We can pull a center, guard or tackle now, and we haven't been able to do that since we've been here. That's going to be fun."

Count Merritt Kirchoffer among that group of agile linemen who can pull out of his stance and get out in front of a sweep, if necessary.

"There's nothing I like better than just cleaning house," he grins. "Kicking out the end, or bringing it up on the linebacker. Not often do we get to hit those little fellows like the DB's, but if they're standing there, they're fair game. It's my job to knock 'em over.

"The thing we've been working on is just cohesion and working together as a team, working better together. People have been stepping up and leading the team, and I think people are going to do a better job of motivating one another. "

Merritt Kirchoffer, Brian Stamper and Mac Pyle will serve as veteran leaders on the offensive line this fall. (Photos by Brent Wiseman, Copyright 2005 for VandyMania.com.)

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