Projected record: 5-7 (ND, USC, UGA, UF, UK, UM, OM); 2-6 and 6th SEC East
Returning offensive starters: 7 (RT, RG, C, LG, LT, TE, QB)
Returning defensive starters: 4 (RDE, ROLB, RCB, FS)
Returning specialists: 0
QB: Vg DL: Av
RB: Fr LB: Fr
WR: Pr DB: Av
OL: Vg ST: Pr
Overview: Unfortunately for the Commodores, the method of success in Nashville is typically to schedule a competitive team every four years, when a strong defense moves up en masse from the junior class. The 2018 Commodores have a veteran defense, but not many returning starters, and the ones that are back couldn’t figure out how to stop teams in 2017. A lack of skill talent on offense threaten to make this another boring – and ultimately, futile – fight for bowl eligibility.
Offensive breakdown: In true Vanderbilt fashion, the Commodores enter fall camp without a backup quarterback. Deuce Wallace was suspended for violating some kind of school policy, so that leaves starter Kyle Shurmur as the only player to even suit up for Vandy before, much less attempt a pass in a game. Shurmur had a solid 2017 season, keeping interceptions to a reasonable level (10) while throwing for 26 touchdowns and 2,823 yards – which, given the supporting cast, probably should have garnered him Heisman attention. Shurmur is about as mobile as the stadium itself, so thankfully for him the ‘Dores return all five starters on the offensive line. The new backup will probably be Syracuse transfer Mo Hasan; if not him, it will be a true freshman, Allan Walters. Translation: Shurmur better stay upright.
His offensive line not only has experience this year, it has depth. Justin Skule and Devin Cochran are solid tackles, and Thule will probably be drafted in April. The entire line excelled in pass blocking, but an ineffective interior running game triggered a position switch in the spring. Center Bruno Reagan has moved to guard, displacing Saige Young. Guard Egidio DellaRipa is the new center, with Young now competing with Cole Clemens for the left guard slot. Jared Southers, Sean McMoore and redshirt freshman Johnathan Stewart provide further depth.
What they can’t provide is explosiveness in the skill areas. With Ralph Webb graduating at running back, Vanderbilt will likely go with the big-back combo of Khari Blasingame and Jamauri Wakefield. Neither player scored a rushing touchdown last year, though, and a general lack of speed an instincts often made them dead weights. Signee Ja’Veon Marlow will be looked to for a burst of speed. Vanderbilt still employs fullbacks, although they’re no longer part of the base set.
At receiver, Kalija Lipscomb was effective last year in a third-receiver role, but now he’ll be expected to draw the double teams. Four-star signee Camron Johnson figures to start sooner or later, as Vandy doesn’t typically get those types to campus. Alex Stump and Donaven Tennyson came out of spring as the starters at flanker and slot, respectively. Tennyson is explosive, but hasn’t gotten a lot of work in the past. Stump, an Ohio State transfer, had just one career reception there. Tight end Jared Pinkney is one of the better ones in the league, but there isn’t much in the way of quality behind him. If Johnson isn’t ready to contribute immediately, it’s unclear whether Lipscomb and Pinkney can give Shurmur the kind of production he needs.
Defensive breakdown: Vanderbilt had 8 seniors in starting roles coming out of spring, but that could change before the first game. Middle linebacker Jordan Griffin isn’t 100 percent, which could force an already suspect linebacker group to look to a freshman, Alton Orji, to lead it. Charles Wright returns at one of the outside spots, but Josh Smith needs to assert himself early on or risk toting the “bust” tag, given his recruiting rep. Undersized Andrew Rector held the other inside spot this spring. He, Griffin, Smith and Wright are all seniors; junior Caleb Peart is the only non-underclassman among the reserves.
Up front, the Odeyingbo brothers, Dare and Dayo, both have a chance to start at end, and Drew Birchmeier is not a bad reserve at that spot. But Vanderbilt will be relying on Penn transfer Louis Vecchio on the other side, and the nosetackle position is completely up for grabs. Holdover sophomore Cameron Tidd will compete with Oregon transfer Rutger Reitmaier, who received a waiver to play immediately, are the top competitors there. Both players are on the small side for a 3-4 nose.
The defensive backfield is reloading a bit, but has the potential to be good. The safety tandem of LaDarius Wiley and Zaire Jones should make for a solid starting group, but there is no depth behind them. Frank Coppet is probably the most likely option but he was barely used in his redshirt freshman season, not a good sign at Vandy. Cornerback Joejuan Williams has the potential to be the best player on the team outside of Shurmur, but he needs to get more consistent. The other starting cornerback job may go to yet another lower-division player transferring up: Former Holy Cross DB Alim Muhammad. If not him, it will likely be Donovan Sheffield, one of the few Commodore DBs in recent years not to live up to his recruiting hype. Tae Daley ran at corner in the spring out of necessity, but is probably a better safety than corner. True freshman Tre’ Douglas has excellent height and length, and was highly undervalued by most recruiting services. Another signee, Brendon Harris, will find a role as well.
Special teams may get an upgrade simply by changing personnel. Tommy Openshaw had a dismal senior year as a whole, and Vandy’s offense did him no favors by failing to get him many opportunities. Javan Rice and Ryley Guay competed for the kicking job in the spring; Guay has kicked in live action before, but Rice, whose brother is also a kicker, has much better upside. Parker Thome, another lower-division transfer, this time from Columbia, is atop the punting chart. There’s not much to write home about either in the return game or the coverage units.
Overall trend: Neutral. A 5-7 record is about the ceiling for the Vanderbilt program on an annual basis, and the school’s recent thwarting of an attempt to better its aging stadium speaks volumes about the lack of commitment to compete in the SEC. It has been said, justifiably so, that the SEC should begin to consider ejecting Vanderbilt from the conference unless it ponies up the money necessary to stay competitive from a facilities standpoint. While that doesn’t have a direct effect on the 2018 team, it can’t be good for team morale when the school’s leadership basically admits to being an SEC whipping boy solely so it can participate in conference revenue windfalls. On the field, this Commodore team might reach bowl eligibility, but there are just so many questions at receiver, running back and linebacker, any discernible improvement upon 2017’s results should be celebrated.
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