2014 Vanderbilt Commodores: Team Overview
by Jess Nicholas
August 24, 2014
In addition to losing head coach James Franklin to Penn State, the Commodores lose more production from its 2013 team than does any team in the conference. Only nine starters return, the team is changing both offensive and defensive schemes, and head coach Derek Mason has never run a program before. Vanderbilt still has a good nucleus, thanks to Franklin’s inspired recruiting, but it would surprise no one if the Commodores missed the postseason.
Returning Offensive Starters: 5 (LT, LG, C, RG, RB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 3 (NT, ROLB, RILB)
Returning Specialists: 1
The Commodores will go with a pro-style attack, complete with fullback much of the time – not a surprise, given that Mason is coming to Nashville from the Stanford program, which believes in pounding the ball even against more talented opponents. However, the change will put a steep premium on execution by the skill players, which are all new except at the tailback position. It remains to be seen whether the move to old-school football is even possible at Vandy.
A three-way battle at the top could extend well into the season. Patton Robinette could go from presumptive starter to out of the picture, depending on how LSU transfer Stephen Rivers performs. Redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary has more upside than either Robinette or Rivers. In Robinette’s corner were a handful of late-game theatrics while playing in relief of departed 2013 starter Austyn Carta-Samuels. But he doesn’t have the raw tools of either Rivers or McCrary, and this offense will need a playmaker under center as the offense undergoes transition.
The duo of Jerron Seymour and Brian Kimbrow are as good as any in the conference in terms of speed and playmaking ability, but the size isn’t there. Seymour is of average build, while Kimbrow is the scatback one usually associates with spread offenses, which is what Vanderbilt ran before. Ralph Webb rounds out the top group, but he doesn’t solve the lack-of-bulk issue. Vanderbilt’s offense demands a fullback, so linebacker Kellen Williams was moved over. Walk-on Chris Martin is the only other real option, although junior Joseph Hoffman may end up competing. Signee Dallas Rivers figures to play at tailback as soon as he can even think about picking up blocks. He has the size and skills Vandy needs if the move to the pro-set sticks.
Only Arkansas’ wideouts look worse as a group, and even then, it’s almost too close to call. The loss of Jordan Matthews to graduation was the biggest hit of all, as he caught 112 balls for 1,477 yards and was unstoppable all year. The best Vandy has returning? Possibly tight end Steven Scheu, and he’s more of a blocker than a receiver. Latevius Rayford probably has the best raw talent of the receivers, and he was a part-time starter in 2013 prior to injury. Jordan Cunningham is the only other veteran in the A-group at the moment; redshirts C.J. Duncan and DeAndre Woods make up the rest of the top group, and neither has any experience. Kris Kentera will play receiver and maybe some tight end as well, while Nathan Marcus will be Scheu’s primary backup. Signee Rashad Canty might be the first of the newcomers to play.
Four starters return, which will give the coaches at least some cushion as they change offensive styles. Center Joe Townsend and right guard Spencer Pulley are an effective combination, and left guard Jake Bernstein combines with them to give the Commodores some potential with inside rushing plays. Left tackle Andrew Jelks has a high upside. Replacing Wesley Johnson in the starting lineup will be the tough assignment, and senior Andrew Bridges will get first shot. Depth is just so-so, with Barrett Gouger, Kevin McCoy and Sean Dowling the most likely names to see time. Delando Crooks us also in the mix.
Change is happening here as well, although the switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base has been tried before in Nashville, and the results weren’t pretty. Mason thinks he can make it work, but only three starters return, none of them in the secondary. To bring in a blitz-heavy base package with no experience in the defensive backfield is a curious choice, at best.
Vince Taylor will be asked to anchor the line in the middle. He is the one player for whom the switch to a 3-4 works well, as he has a true noseguard’s frame. The rest of the line is made up of question marks, and there is very little depth. The Commodores left spring with only four players in the A-group. In addition to Taylor, they were Adam Butler and Barron Dixon at the ends and redshirt freshman Jay Woods backing up everything. True freshman Nifae Lealao will get every opportunity to crack the starting lineup. He could have gone anywhere out of high school, yet picked Vanderbilt. Torey Agee adds depth along with signee Riley Tindol, who was a late bloomer yet could turn out to be the steal of the recruiting class.
Caleb Azubike and Kyle Woestmann are making the switch from defensive ends to outside linebackers, and if both of them are going to be on the field at the same time – a distinct possibility, given that they are Vandy’s two best defensive players – then the Commodores might end up playing a hybrid 5-2 scheme when all is said and done. Darreon Herring returns at inside linebacker. Redshirt freshman Nigel Bowden gets the other inside assignment. There is decent depth here, given the exodus of defensive linemen to this group; Jonathan Wynn and Stephen Weatherly will back up the outside positions while Jake Sealand and Zach Cunningham man the inside. Vanderbilt virtually struck out in recruiting linebackers, so this is probably the final group.
The coaches like Andrew Williamson at safety, and cornerbacks Paris Head and Tre Bell both have potential. But Head and Bell are both underclassmen, as is Oren Burks, who will start next to Williamson. In addition, the backups all got playing time last year thanks to multiple injuries. Darrius Sims and Torren McGaster will back up the corner positions, while Jahmel McIntosh gives Vandy a good third safety. Redshirt freshman Ryan White will back up Williamson, and signees Khari Blasingame and Emmanuel Smith could also see early time. Smith will compete for a starting job.
Taylor Hudson returns at punter along with Colby Cooke; the two traded the job back and forth throughout 2013. One or both needs to be more consistent, however. Tommy Oppenshaw appears to be the new placekicker, although David Holtgrave will push him. Darrius Sims will likely be the primary return man, with one of several receivers and defensive backs in the fight to play alongside him.
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