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Previews 2016: Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee and Vanderbilt


Sep 12, 2015; Nashville, TN, USA; Vanderbilt Commodores head coach Derek Mason prior to leading his team onto the field for the game against the Georgia Bulldogs at Vanderbilt Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 12, 2015; Nashville, TN, USA; Vanderbilt Commodores head coach Derek Mason prior to leading his team onto the field for the game against the Georgia Bulldogs at Vanderbilt Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Vanderbilt Commodores

Overview: This may be the end of the line for Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason, who came in with big expectations but almost immediately took Vanderbilt back to its woeful past, defined by noncompetitive teams and poor sideline decisions. There is a thought that this year’s Commodore team has a bowl bid in its future, but it would take 2-3 significant upsets. If the Commodores finish as TideFans predicts, 3-9, Mason likely won’t be around to coach the team in 2017 and beyond.

Projected record: 3-9 (AU, OM, UF, UGA, UK, UM, USC, UT, GaTch); 0-8 and 7th SEC East
Returning offensive starters: 5 (RB, SE, FL, C, RT)
Returning defensive starters: 5 (RDE, ROLB, RILB, RCB, LCB)
Returning specialists: 1 (PK/P)

Unit ratings
QB: Fr DL: Fr
RB: Vg LB: Av
WR: Fr DB: Fr
OL: Fr ST: Fr

Offensive breakdown: Mason came in determined to remake the Commodores in the image of his former employer, the Stanford Cardinal. Until, that is, Vanderbilt proved that it simply couldn’t recruit enough talent to play power football in the SEC. That led to Mason bringing back the spread elements at times over the last couple of years. This year, it’s all or nothing. There’s a fullback on the field and Mason seems determined to either make the I-formation work, or get fired trying. At quarterback, sophomore Kyle Shurmur is set to start, but both junior Wade Freebeck and true freshman Deuce Wallace have their supporters. Mason’s biggest failure as Vandy’s head coach has been the inability to pick a quarterback and stick with him. If this year turns into yet another game of QB Musical Chairs, the Commodores could lose 10 games. Shurmur completed only 42.7% of his passes in 5 games last year, but did throw more touchdowns than interceptions, at least. Mason burned Freebeck’s redshirt for one game last year, another questionable decision; two years ago, as a true freshman, Freebeck showed brief flashes but not enough raw talent. Wallace may be the most talented of the group but playing true freshmen under center has failed Mason in the past and he might not want to go down that road again.

There are no such questions at running back, where Ralph Webb carried for 1,152 yards as a sophomore last year and became one of the SEC’s most respected backs. Josh Crawford becomes the backup now, and he struggled as a freshman. Freshmen Jaire George and Jamauri Wakefield add depth. At fullback, Dallas Rivers is a real threat to run, not just block, while backup Khari Blasingame is a thumper. The receiver position largely depends on how well C.J. Duncan bounces back from an injury that sidelined him last year. Vanderbilt badly lacks playmaking ability otherwise. Darrius Sims, Trent Sherfield and Caleb Scott all have starting experience, but Sims is the only one of the trio that looks like he can take the next step in development. Tight end will be all-new, with Nathan Marcus and a freshman, Jared Pinkney, fighting for the job. Both will play, but neither is expected to be a key contributor.

The offensive line took a big blow when Andrew Jelks was lost for a second straight year. When healthy, Jelks was a force, winning accolades as a freshman in 2013. He’ll petition for a sixth year of eligibility, but that doesn’t help Vanderbilt in the now. With Jelks out, Will Holden becomes the bellcow of the line; he’ll likely start at right tackle, with Justin Skule, Bailey Granier and Jared Southers fighting for the left tackle spot. Barrett Gouger moves from guard to center to start there, while Delando Crooks and Bruno Reagan will handle guard duties. Ean Pfeifer and Egidio DellaRipa will back up guard and center.

Defensive breakdown: Mason drew a lot of fire from moving Vanderbilt from a 4-3 to a 3-4 base when he took over in 2014, and the results that year were predictably bad. But in 2015, Vandy bounced back, finishing 33rd against the run and 41st against the pass. Vanderbilt still doesn’t have the talent to stay in a three-man front often, witnessed by the fact that Nehemiah Mitchell and Jonathan Wynn go about 250 or so and will usually only play when Vanderbilt is spread out in a four-man front. Adam Butler starts at end when the Commodores go to three down linemen. Nifae Lealao is a legitimate talent at tackle, but depth is a serious issue. When Vanderbilt is four-wide up front, Jay Woods, Lealao’s backup at tackle, is the only other player available. Vanderbilt is trying to develop depth from such names as Torey Agee and Darion DeBrossard, but as usual, depth up front will be a killer.

The linebacker group isn’t highly rated right now, but it has the potential to be dominant. Zach Cunningham is one of the best linebackers in the SEC, and if he stays healthy all year, he could leave early to be a high draft pick. Nigel Bowden was solid two years ago but suffered a major concussion last year that ended his season very early. If Bowden is back to 2014 form, he and Cunningham will be as good as any inside duo in the conference. Oren Burks and Landon Stokes will start at outside linebacker, and that’s where the concern lies. Burks is technically a safety. In the defensive backfield, Torren mcGaster and Tre Herndon are solid at cornerback, but the Commodores are rebuilding the safety unit. Tre Tarpley will probably lose his starting job to Ryan White, while Emmanuel Smith needs to live up to his recruiting hype. Andrew Rector is also in the mix.

Tommy Openshaw may end up being both the kicker and punter again. Vanderbilt signed highly touted punter Sam Loy over the offseason, though, and would like Openshaw to concentrate on his kicking. Openshaw has a big leg, but is erratic. The Commodores didn’t make many plays in the return game, and the overall lack of athleticism on the roster shows up when it’s time for Vandy to kick the ball away.

Overall trend: Sideways. Unfortunately, this rating is given mostly because the Commodores can’t go much further down. Despite having arguably more talent on the roster, top to bottom, than it has had since the early part of the 20th century, the Commodores are rarely competitive, and both of Mason’s seasons have found Vanderbilt displaying the same, woe-is-us attitude once the season began going in the dumpster that has become a signature of the program. James Franklin’s infectious energy and take-on-all-comers attitude was just what this program needed. If Mason can’t bring that back, he’s toast.

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