Returning Offensive Starters: 8 (SE, FL, LT, LG, C, RT, TE, RB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 8 (DT/E, DE, ROLB, RILB, LILB, RCB, LCB, FS)
Returning Specialists: 2 (PK, P)
Projected Overall Record: 4-8 (UF, UGA, UK, UM, USC, UT, OM, TAM)
Projected SEC Record: 0-8 (UF, UGA, UK, UM, USC, UT, OM, TAM)
Projected SEC East Record: 0-6 (UF, UGA, UK, UM, USC, UT)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Av Defensive Line: Av
Running Backs: Pr Linebackers: Av
Wide Receivers: Fr Defensive Backs: Av
Offensive Line: Fr Special Teams: Vg
Many people saw the collapse coming early last year for Vanderbilt, as the Commodores tried to change too many things simultaneously under first-year coach Derek Mason. Mason ditched the ‘Dores’ spread offense for a pro-style I-formation, then dumped the 4-3 defense in favor of a 3-4. Neither move worked particularly well, and Mason’s strange quarterback roulette killed any momentum former coach James Franklin had left him. In 2015, the future doesn’t look much brighter, although Mason at least appears to be a respectable recruiter, meaning happier days may lie ahead.
Mason has more or less dropped the insistence on the Pro-I, and Vanderbilt will run as much three-wide spread this year as not. It’s a good move given the lack of depth at running back and an offensive line that isn’t going to suddenly transform into Wisconsin or USC no matter how much Mason wishes it. Vanderbilt ranked 105th or worse in all four major offensive categories in 2014; the challenge in 2015 will be to return to competency.
Patton Robinette elected to give up football, which left a two-man battle in the spring. Somewhat surprisingly, Wade Freebeck won the job over Johnny McCrary, given the fact Vanderbilt can use all the freestyle ability it can get at the QB position. Freebeck is a dyed-in-the-wool pocket passer, who threw 5 interceptions to only 1 touchdown pass in 2014. McCrary was the leading returning passer. Neither player threw for 1,000 yards. Redshirt freshman Shawn Stankavage and true freshman Kyle Shurmur, the latter a highly-rated prospect, will compete for the third spot. It remains to be seen whether Mason would play a true freshman quarterback in 2015 given the merry-go-round he helmed in 2014; most observers believe Shurmur will redshirt.
Depth at this position is razor-thin. Ralph Webb turned into a nice option for Vanderbilt as a true freshman, amassing 912 yards and averaging 4.3 yards per carry after Jerron Seymour’s senior year turned into a bust. But there’s nothing behind him. Dallas Rivers, who will probably be Webb’s backup, was underwhelming at best in 2014. Ladarius Banks will play fullback when Vanderbilt needs one, but he’s not much larger than Webb and can probably count on some carries out of a single-back look this year. Vanderbilt signed two players in the offseason; Wetumpkas Josh Crawford appears to have the inside track to play as a true freshman. Jaire George was regarded as a borderline SEC prospect but he might have to play as well. There is literally no one else available. Chris Martin will back up Banks at fullback. Vanderbilt is one or two injuries away from having to enlist players at other positions. Wide receiver Darrius Sims, a scatback-type, played running back in the spring and could move back.
Only the lack of depth at running back makes it a worse unit than this one. Latevius Rayford returns as a starter, but he scares no one. The other returning starter, C.J. Duncan, was at least physical and hard to cover in press-man, but he was lost for the season early in camp with a leg injury. Both players needed to get much more consistent and neither was or is a speed player. Assuming Vanderbilt bases out of a three-wide set, Caleb Scott will be the new starter. Scott caught 6 passes in 2014 and is regarded as sure-handed, but lacks athleticism. More intriguing are the backups – Ronald Monroe, Kris Kentera and Trent Sherfield, and one of them will have to step up in Duncan’s absence. Both Kentera and Monroe are bigger receivers who can stretch their catch windows, while Sherfield has some of the same physical traits as Duncan. Signee Jared Pinkney may be the most intriguing, however, as he is roughly the same size as Julio Jones. Time will tell if he can be even at least fractionally as effective as Jones was for Alabama. Tight end Steven Scheu led the team in receptions and yards in 2014 and returns for 2015, but he has to be schemed open and needs to get more consistent in the running game. He’s also coming off an injury. Nathan Marcus and massive Sean Dowling will offer depth there.
In addition to losing Duncan at wide receiver, the Commodores lost left tackle Andrew Jelks for the season with a knee injury as camp started. Now Vanderbilt is in trouble. Will Holden will have to move to left tackle from right, most likely. Opposite him could be Blake Fromang or freshman Bailey Granier, or Sean Dowling could move back from tight end. Inside, Spencer Pulley gives Vanderbilt a solid center, and Jake Bernstein is a reliable option at left guard. Sophomore Delando Crooks led the competition at right guard in the spring. Barrett Gouger and Cole Hardin offer depth at center, while Bruno Reagan and Gouger will be the reserve guards. Egidio DellaRipa could find his way into the mix at either guard or tackle. The Commodores added several talented true freshmen in the spring, but would like to be able to redshirt them all.
The Commodores run a scheme not too different from Alabama’s 3-4 over/under, but given the Commodores ranked 104th in scoring defense in 2014, the look is about the only thing that is similar. Vanderbilt had a problem stopping the run, which the Commodores hope will correct itself with improvement at linebacker and the safety positions. The defensive line may be the strength of the team, an odd thing to say at a school not known for its big men.
Ends Adam Butler and Caleb Azubike could play for much better teams if they chose. Butler moves very well for someone 6’5” and 300 pounds, while Azubike is a supremely talented rush end. Azubike needs to get more consistent against the run, however, as he was a liability at times for the 2014 squad. The question is the nosetackle position. Vandy thinks it has a couple of talented players in Jay Woods and Nifae Lealao, but they must prove themselves. Woods, who led the battle in the spring, is not big enough to play the position full-time in the SEC. Depth, as always for Vanderbilt, is a concern. Jonathan Wynn and Sekou Clark will back up Azubike and Butler, while Torey Agee and Riley Tindal will offer depth inside. As usual, an injury would kill a lot of optimism.
One position at which Vanderbilt always seems to thrive is the linebacker spot. Stephen Weatherly took well to the change to the 3-4 alignment last season, becoming a feared pass rusher from what amounts to be Vandy’s Jack spot. The rest of the group, though, could use some work. Nigel Bowden and Darreon Herring will start at the inside slots, while either Nehemiah Mitchell or Landon Stokes will be the new starter at the strongside spot. Given the size of Mitchell, Stokes and Weatherly, Vanderbilt is almost going for a 5-2 look. Zach Cunningham and Ja’Karri Thomas appear to be in the mix for playing time inside, but the real name to watch is true freshman Josh Smith. Smith could have played anywhere in the country but chose Vanderbilt. He will play somewhere, likely behind Weatherly at first, but he won’t stay off the field long. If Bowden and Herring continue to struggle against the run, he’ll replace one of them, likely Herring. Bowden could be a solid player with a little more work.
The Commodores ranked 49th in pass defense in 2014, and for the first time in years, didn’t have a true bellcow in this position group. The starting lineup will be shuffled a bit in 2015, with last year’s strong safety, Jahmel McIntosh, now backing up free safety Andrew Williamson, who is the veteran leader of the bunch. Cornerbacks Torren McGaster and Taurean Ferguson return to their posts, but they’ll be pushed by reserves. Ferguson in particular had issues with larger receivers last year. Tre Bell and Tre Herndon are both bigger corners and could effect a depth chart flip. At safety, another Tre, Tre Tarpley, is battling Oren Burks for the strong safety spot. Burks, who has linebacker size, could be a load at the position. As usual, it’s all about measurables, and Vanderbilt’s unit lacks the speed and instincts present at most other SEC schools.
The Commodores will be able to lean on their special teams early on, particularly punter Colby Cooke. Cooke’s gross punting average was commendable for the 2014 squad, but the Commodores added to their offensive and defensive woes by also failing to cover punts in a decent manner. Placekicker Tommy Openshaw only got 11 chances in 2014, but he showed good natural ability and should handle his duties reliably. Vanderbilt likes its return tandem of Darrius Sims and Trey Ellis, but consistency was lacking from the blocking units last year.