Previews 2019: Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee and Vanderbilt

Jul 19, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Vanderbilt Commodores head coach Derek Mason addresses the media during SEC football media day at the College Football Hall of Fame. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Vanderbilt Commodores

Projected record: 5-7 (LSU, UF, UGA, UK, UM, USC, UT); 1-7 and 7th SEC East
Returning offensive starters: 7 (SE, FL, WR, TE, LT, LG, RB)
Returning defensive starters: 4 (DT/E, DT, MLB, FS)
Returning specialists: 1 (PK)

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

Offense – what’s to like: Vanderbilt probably has one of the best running back situations in the conference, and unlike some past seasons, there’s plenty of beef. Ke’Shawn Vaughn ran for 1,244 yards and 12 touchdowns and averaged 7.9 yards per carry in 2018, numbers that any team would have taken from their starter. Jamauri Wakefield had a decent-but-not-great 2018, but he should get better now that he’s not splitting reps with TB/FB combo player Khari Blasingame, who graduated.

The wide receiver group could end up being much better than its rating, depending on how younger players develop. Kalija Lipscomb caught 87 passes last year and scored 9 times, but he averaged just over 10 yards per catch. He needs to be more active downfield. Flanker C.J. Bolar was good but not great as a complementary player. The real wild cards are youngsters Amir Abdur-Rahman and Cam Johnson, who are getting rave reviews for athleticism, but neither has played many snaps. Th best player overall is probably tight end Jared Pinkney, who caught 50 passes for 774 yards and 7 touchdowns, averaging 15.5 yards per catch. Few SEC teams have a tight end who can match that kind of production.

Offense – potential pitfalls: Everything is going to come down to how QB Riley Neal makes the transition up from Ball State, where he is coming from as a grad transfer. Deuce Wallace and Mo Hasan are pushing him, especially Wallace. Neal is 6’6” and was a three-year starter at Ball State, but neither he nor Wallace are complete players.

The other issue to watch is the offensive line. Despite Vaughn’s output at the running back position, Vanderbilt ranked just 66th in rushing offense. The ‘Dores get props, though, for keeping former QB Kyle Shurmur alive, ranking 35th in sacks allowed despite Shurmur being a statue in the pocket. This year, the entire right side of the line is going to be new, with new RT Tyler Steen a freshman. Look for some mistakes early on.

Defense/special teams – what’s to like: If the inside linebackers can play to potential, the middle of the defense is going to be tough. Vanderbilt has veteran DT Drew Birchmeier in front and veteran safety Frank Coppet behind, so it’s going to be up to Dimitri Moore to continue to grow into his role in the middle. Alston Orji is set to be the new starter next to Moore, and he comes with an impressive prep pedigree.

Vandy expects to spice up its kick return game a bit with Harvard graduate transfer Justice Shelton-Mosley. He was an all-American at the FCS level two years ago and could prove to be a weapon.

Defense/special teams – potential pitfalls: We could spend an entire afternoon here. The best part of the Commodores’ front seven was its outside linebackers, both of which are now gone. There was a feeling after spring camp that the needed players weren’t on campus, but Vanderbilt didn’t pick up much help in the recruiting cycle. The Commodores also have to replace three starters in the secondary, including essentially the entire cornerback group. The word “transfer” pops up a lot in evaluating the Commodore secondary, as both Dontye Carriere-Williams and Cameron Watkins were playing elsewhere last year.

Up front, the names are familiar, but Vandy needs a lot more production out of Cameron Tidd and Dayo Odeyingbo. Vanderbilt ranked 94th in rushing defense in 2018 and 94th in sacks. The response to the problem included getting a graduate transfer from Marist (DT Eddie Zinn-Turner). That’s not exactly what the fans might have preferred.

On special teams, PK Ryley Guay has to improve his accuracy. There will be a new punter, either walk-on holdover Harrison Smith or signee Jared Wheatley.

Final analysis: The Commodores have made a habit of punching above their weight, and they’ll need to do it again to avoid a losing season. As always, there just isn’t enough elite OL or DL talent to go around in the SEC, and that’s where Vanderbilt finds itself lacking the most. Head coach Derek Mason has rebounded nicely after a rough start in Nashville, but now the school and its fans are wondering when the Commodores take the next step up. It might actually be a question of “if,” not “when.”

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