SEC spring football forecast: Vanderbilt Commodores

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With the offseason officially underway, SDS will examine what’s next for spring football for all 14 teams. Next up, Vanderbilt.

Vanderbilt opens spring practice tomorrow, and the Commodores will play their spring game April 12.

RELATED: See where Vandy finished in SDS’ final 2013 rankings

What’s changing?

Unlike any other SEC program, Vanderbilt is coaching through a transition from James Franklin to Derek Mason. Mason already seems like a strong fit with a great background and coaching pedigree. Ideally, Vanderbilt’s goal is to become the Stanford of the East; Mason knows how to get there perhaps better than 90 percent of the field. Along with a new coaching staff, the Commodores are losing left tackle Wesley Johnson, All-American receiver Jordan Matthews and several defensive players, including four defensive secondary starters.

Position of concern

The Commodores return just four of the top 10 tacklers from 2013, and the backbone of the defensive success really started in the secondary. The Commodores lose safeties Kenny Ladler and Javon Marshall, along with cornerbacks Andre Hal and Steven Clark. Ladler was the team’s leading tackler, and Hal was one of the conference’s best-kept defensive secrets. The secondary has been one of the biggest keys in the Commodores rewriting the record book during the James Franklin era.

RELATED: SEC Pre-Spring Power Rankings

Position of strength

The great thing for Mason and new offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell is that the Commodores are loaded at running back. From 14-touchdown back Jerron Seymour to the shifty Brian Kimbrow, no matter who wins the quarterback job, the offense will feed the backfield. Also, watch out for redshirt freshman Ralph Webb, who is a burner and a Florida native.

Three signees who will get you excited

1. Nifae Lealao, DE: You have to feel good about Mason, who was on the job only a few weeks and landed the Commodores’ biggest signee to date. Lealao is a Cali native, and he’ll make an instant impact.

2. Emmanuel Smith, DB: A major position of need, Smith will enter this summer looking to earn immediate playing time. Smith is a great looking player, and he could make an instant splash.

3. Ronald Monroe, ATH: Monroe may not make a major impact during his first season, but he’s a gifted athlete who will start his career at quarterback. He may be too good to leave off the field.

MORE: Vanderbilt National Signing Day recap

Spring’s primary position battle

This spring is all about the ensuing quarterback battle between returner Patton Robinette and redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary. Robinette threw for 642 yards, four touchdowns and five INTs, and he rushed for 214 yards and seven touchdowns while replacing the injured Austyn Carta-Samuels. He struggled throwing at times, but he was very effective with his legs. McCrary is a 6-4, 218-pound dual-threat signal caller from Georgia. He redshirted last season, but he has undeniable ability. He’s a better runner than Robinette, and we’ll find out how well he can spin it this spring.

Emerging spring player prediction

The defensive player to watch is linebacker Nigel Bowden. He’s blessed with tremendous physical skills at 6-1, 235 pounds, and former players have raved about his ability. With middle linebacker Chase Garnham gone, I really expect Bowden to become a major player this spring. He should physically wow the new coaching staff and earn a starting role.

Offseason’s burning question

Can Derek Mason make a bowl game during his first season?

Commodores’ offseason crystal ball

Looking into the crystal ball, both Robinette and McCrary will earn time at quarterback this spring. It wouldn’t surprise me if both played a big role this coming season. The biggest receiver target emerging is the 6-1 Jordan Cunningham. The Florida native flashed superior skills as a freshman, and he’s going to be a great player for Mason’s offense. This will be a big spring for Mason and his new coaching staff.

Photo Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

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