Overview: No matter how much Ole Miss and Tennessee were struggling at year’s end, the fact Vanderbilt beat both – not to mention Georgia earlier in the year – to get bowl-eligible was a huge step up for embattled Derek Mason. It was enough to get him off the hotseat, and he’ll stay off it barring the upcoming season falling completely apart. It will be difficult to repeat as a bowl team thanks to the questions at linebacker and offensive line, but Mason has at least stabilized the team’s base.
Projected record: 5-7 (UF, UK, USC, UT, UA, OM, UGA); 1-7 and 6th SEC East
Returning offensive starters: 8 (SE, FL, TE, LT, LG, RG, QB, RB)
Returning defensive starters: 7 (RDE, NT, LILB, RCB, LCB, SS, FS)
Returning specialists: 2 (PK/P)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
QB: Fr DL: Av
RB: Ex LB: Fr
WR: Av DB: Vg
OL: Fr ST: Av
Offensive breakdown: It’s almost quaint to look at the roster and see fullbacks on it, but the Commodores are trying to make a go of things as the SEC’s last remaining I-formation base team. Combine that with the 3-4 defensive scheme and it’s like 1975 all over again. What will make this team go is Kyle Shurmur’s continued progression at quarterback. Shurmur threw more interceptions than touchdowns in 2016 but he improved steadily week to week. He can get rattled at times but he’s the best the Commodores have and has shown the capability to make crucial plays. Shawn Stankavage and highly-regarded redshirt freshman Deuce Wallace will compete for the backup job, but neither has any experience.
Ralph Webb’s presence in the backfield will make quarterback development easier once again. Webb established himself as one of the best backs in the SEC and he has a pro future ahead of him. Converted linebacker Khari Blasingame took to his new role in 2016 and combined with Webb to score 23 touchdowns on the ground as a 1-2 punch. Redshirt freshman Jamauri Wakefield is expected to do great things. Bailey McElwain and Dallas Rivers give the Commodores a good situation at fullback, McElwain so much so that he could also attract pro attention in a couple of years. As for receiver, the emergence of Trent Sherfield and Kalija Lipscomb, particularly late in the year, allowed Vanderbilt to establish a multi-weapon rotation with C.J. Duncan and Caleb Scott. Scott, who recorded a 19.4-yard average over 24 catches, particularly raised a few eyebrows. All four players return. Unfortunately, that’s about all Vanderbilt has, as skill talent is at a premium. Staying healthy will be critical. The tight end combo of Nathan Marcus and Jared Pinkney could wind up being one of the best in the league, and is certainly its most underrated already.
The offensive line is a different story, however. It’s most resembles a movie – call it “Bruno Reagan and Four Dudes.” Reagan, Vandy’s right guard, has an NFL future ahead of him if he continues to develop. The issue is, the Commodores have little else to go around him. Justin Skule goes from being a swing tackle to the expected bellcow of the unit, getting the coveted LT assignment. Ean Pfeifer returns at left guard, but finding a new center and especially an off-tackle opposite Skule proved difficult in the spring. Cole Hardin seemed to nail down center at the end, but right tackle remains a work in progress.
Defensive breakdown: The pass defense (ranked 83rd) was the Achilles heel of the defense in 2016, but will likely be the strength of the defense in 2017. There are issues in the front seven, as three of four linebacker spots will be manned by new players, while the line replaces the venerable Adam Butler at end and needs to turn up its production. Jonathan Wynn has scary potential at DE but has yet to realize it. Nifae Lealao and Jay Woods give Vanderbilt some depth up the middle, but everything else will come down either to freshmen, or the hope that junior Dare Odeyingbo comes through. The linebacker situation is similar; Oren Burks returns, but he’s having to bulk up and move inside and will be watched closely in the early going. The rest of the unit could change daily. Emmanuel Smith has experience, but limited potential. Kenny Hebert is probably highest on the potential list, and will try to unseat either Charles Wright or Josh Smith at one of the outside rush spots.
The defensive backfield is full of senior experience, but it’s the lone younger player, sophomore Joejuan Williams, who gets the most attention. He seems to have won a starting job in the spring, which would allow Vanderbilt to shift Taurean Ferguson to a nickel role on a permanent basis. Safeties Ryan White and Arnold Tarpley know where to go, but top-end athleticism is an issue. Zaire Jones will get a long look at the position.
The kicking situation is solid, at least at placekicker, where Tommy Openshaw developed into a reliable option in 2016. Punter Sam Loy has promise but his development last year went at a deliberate pace. Vandy will have to rebuild its return units, and the lack of roster depth always seems to show up on coverage teams.
Overall trend: Sideways. It just flies too much in the face of history to look at a 6-6 Vanderbilt team and predict further improvement. Derek Mason should be commended for finally growing into the job, and Vanderbilt commended for giving him enough time to do it. Having said that, if the Commodores want to get back to an eight- or nine-win plateau as it was doing under former coach James Franklin, recruiting is going to have to kick it up a notch. Vandy will always, to some degree, be an outlier in the SEC, playing with 80 percent of a contender’s roster and trying to cover up holes. There may just be too many in 2017 to allow for a second consecutive bowl bid.
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Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessn
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