No. 73 Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt wasn't supposed to return to relevance just three years after James Franklin's departure. They were supposed to meander in mediocrity for all eternity, like they did in Derek Mason's first two years.
Mason and the Commodores didn't get the memo and instead retooled the roster, developed under-the-radar talent and crafted a team that's a couple offensive pieces away from making serious noise in the SEC East.
2016 Record: 6-7 (3-5, SEC)
Their offense woke up late in the season with 11 touchdowns and 83 points over their final two SEC games after seven touchdowns and 79 points in the first six league games.
Head Coach: Derek Mason (4th year, 13-24 overall)
After seven total wins in two years following the departure of James Franklin, Derek Mason brought Vanderbilt back to the postseason a six-win campaign. He received a raise and extension after the season.
"We went to a bowl game in his third year, but it's not only that," athletics director David Williams said of his enthusiastic head coach. "You could see the growth in the program overall. This year will be the first year that we actually have the type of depth that we would like to have, and I think Derek is a master at developing players."
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Kyle Shurmur, RB Ralph Webb, RB Khari Blasingame, WR Caleb Scott, WR Trent Sherfield, WR C.J. Duncan, WR Kalija Lipscomb, OT Justin Skule, G Ean Pfeifer, G Bruno Reagan
Vanderbilt's offense failed to score 14 points seven times last year and they lost five games in which their defense held opponents to 26 or fewer points. The onus is on junior quarterback Kyle Shurmur to change that.
He has completed 52 percent of his passes in two years, averaging barely six yards per attempt while throwing 13 interceptions to 14 touchdowns. However, the light flickered last November when he was 38-for-64 for 689 yards with four touchdowns and one interception in wins over the Rebels and Vols.
Shurmur's top two running backs return, led by senior Ralph Webb. He has back-to-back 1,100-yard seasons and combined with Blasingame to score 23 touchdowns. His top four receivers also are back, three of whom are seniors, including slot man C.J. Duncan. Derek Mason called Duncan their "go-to guy" in 2017.
"This spring, he showed up and showed out,” said Mason. “I think C.J. is one of those guys who teams didn’t really account for. When you watched him, he just moved the chains.”
On the line, they lost two key bodies but still return three starters. Guard Ean Pfeifer played well as a true freshman and should have the spot locked down for the next three years.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DT Jay Woods, DT Nifae Lealao, DE Jonathan Wynn, LB Oren Burks, CB Taurean Ferguson, CB Tre Herndon, CB Joejuan Williams, S Ryan White, S Arnold Tarpley
The strength of a Commodores' defense that yielded 25 points and helped secure a positive turnover margin (plus-four) is their secondary. It's deep, talented and experienced, yet includes a few youngsters that enter a pivotal season with the impending departures of five key players.
Sophomore corner Joejuan Williams didn't see major playing time until November and finished with just 19 tackles and two passes defended. He's 6-foot-3, 203 pounds, oozing with NFL potential and should take a big step forward this fall.
"We saw Joejuan start the season off slow, and then he became a mainstay late in the season,” Mason said during spring practice. “He’s just got to show an ability to lock up and cover consistently. In this conference, you’ve got to have guys on the perimeter that allow you to do different things on the inside.”
Senior Oren Burks leads the linebackers after Zach Cunningham's departure, and three more seniors, tackles Nifae Lealao and Jay Woods and end Jonathan Wynn, anchor a defensive line that might lack star power but has tremendous depth.
Notable Player Losses
OT Will Holden, C Barrett Grouger, DE Adam Butler, LB Zach Cunningham, CB Torren McGaster
Zach Cunningham, the best defensive player in team history, left early for the NFL draft. The First-Team All-American had 213 tackles, 30.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and five forced fumbles the last two years. Disruptive end Adam Butler (7.5 tackles for loss, four sacks) and corner Torren McGaster (10 passes defended) will also be missed.
Though all of their offensive skill players return, the unit still lost two huge pieces in Barrett Grouger at center and NFL Draft pick Will Holden at tackle. The Cardinals' fifth-round pick was an All-SEC Second-Team selection in 2016.
Notable Player Additions
QB Deuce Wallace, QB Jacob Free, QB Marvin Zanders, RB Jamauri Wakefield, WR Alex Stump, G Saige Young, DT Josiah Sa'o, DE Drew Birchmeier, DE Cameron Todd
If Shurmur can't get it done, Vandy has three intriguing options behind him in two freshmen and one graduate transfer. Wallace, a 6-foot-2, 205-pounder, redshirted last year, while Jacob Free is a 6-foot-4, 212-pound true freshman. Mizzou transfer Zanders arrived this summer after initially planning to transfer to Virginia.
Redshirt freshman running back Jamauri Wakefield has earned the most attention of any addition this offseason. He's a big body (6-foot-1, 218 pounds) with good quickness and vision.
“We saw it all last year. Even when he was redshirting on scout team, he was tearing it up,” Shurmur said in March. “But this spring, he has gotten some reps. …You see his stature. He is explosive and powerful, and his work ethic is second to none.”
Elsewhere, three redshirt freshmen could make an impact on the defensive line, namely end Drew Birchmeier. He's not an explosive edge rusher but at 6-foot-4, 292 pounds he can work anywhere on the line. And Ohio State grad transfer Alex Stump will provide depth at receiver.
Vanderbilt is one of few Power Five programs playing a Group of Five road game. But their season opener at Middle Tennessee isn't the only tricky non-conference game; the Commodores host Kansas State two weeks later.
|Saturday, Sept. 2||at Middle Tennessee|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||vs. Alabama A&M|
|Saturday, Sept. 16||vs. Kansas State|
|Saturday, Sept. 23||vs. Alabama|
|Saturday, Sept. 30||at Florida|
|Saturday, Oct. 7||vs. Georgia|
|Saturday, Oct. 14||at Ole Miss|
|Saturday, Oct. 28||at South Carolina|
|Saturday, Nov. 4||vs. Western Kentucky|
|Saturday, Nov. 11||vs. Kentucky|
|Saturday, Nov. 18||vs. Missouri|
|Saturday, Nov. 25||at Tennessee|