SEC football isn’t “around the corner,” it’s here. SouthernPigskin.com‘s Matt Smith takes gives us a sneak preview of the Commodores.
After finishing last in the SEC in explosive plays in 2015, Vanderbilt is hoping to develop more play-making ability on offense.
2015 Record: 4-8 (2-6 SEC)
Offensive Returning Starters: 8 (QB Kyle Shurmur, RB Ralph Webb, WR C.J. Duncan*, WR Trent Sherfield, WR Caleb Scott, OT Will Holden, OT Andrew Jelks*, OG Barrett Gouger)
Defensive Returning Starters: 8 (DE Adam Butler, LB Nehemiah Mitchell, LB Stephen Weatherly, LB Zach Cunningham, LB Nigel Bowden*, CB Torren McGaster, CB Tre Herndon, S Oren Burks)
*Injured in 2015, but was a starter in 2014
Practice Opens: Feb. 22
Spring Game: Mar. 25, 6 p.m. CT
1. Half Staff
31 assistant coaching changes were made among the 11 SEC programs that retained their head coach this offseason, but none had more than Vanderbilt (five). More than half of Derek Mason’s on-field staff has turned over, with one open position still to fill. Both coordinators return (Mason is his own defensive coordinator), so it’s not as dramatic of a makeover as it may seem. However, with staff chemistry having been an issue in Mason’s first two years, the new staff needs to mesh better than the previous two did.
Among the notable changes, former Eastern Michigan head coach Jeff Genyk gives Mason a former FBS head coach on staff, something he did not have a year ago. Chris Marve, an All-SEC linebacker for the Commodores from 2008-2011, returns to coach his old position, which should be the strength of the team in 2016.
2. Explosion Needed
Vanderbilt finished dead last in the SEC last year in explosive plays, amassing just 38 plays of 20 yards or longer, four fewer than any other team in the conference. Teams with inherent talent disadvantages, like Vanderbilt, have often thrived by developing explosive offenses. That’s not how Mason wants to play, for which you can’t really blame him given how Stanford, a comparable institution, won with physicality and defense in the Pac-12 when he was on staff.
But this is the SEC. 12-play, 75-yard drives are going to be rare for any team, but even more so for Vanderbilt. Sophomore quarterback Kyle Shurmur has a strong enough arm to challenge defenses down the field and now isn’t a green freshman thrown to the wolves. The return of wide receiver C.J. Duncan, who missed all of last season with a leg injury, should also help matters. Explosiveness needs to be an emphasis over the next five weeks. Simply put, the status quo can’t continue if the Commodores want to be a bowl team in 2016
3. Interior Design
Depth is and will always be a concern for Vanderbilt, but in terms of starters, there aren’t many holes to plug from last season, especially with the returns of Duncan, offensive tackle Andrew Jelks and linebacker Nigel Bowden from injury. One area of concern is the interior offensive line, where Vanderbilt must replace a pair of three-year starters in center Spencer Pulley and guard Jake Bernstein.
Two players hoping to follow in the footsteps of Pulley and Bernstein as three-year starters are redshirt sophomores Cole Hardin and Bruno Reagan. New offensive line coach Cameron Norcross can put his own stamp on the unit, but he has a challenge on his hands as he takes a big step up in competition following four seasons at Fresno State. The good news for Norcross is that, if Jelks returns to full speed, the tackles should be an asset.