Vanderbilt football: 10 biggest questions (and answers) I have heading into fall camp
I thought I had Vandy figured out last year.
I questioned the skill players and thought that the defense was going to be the strength, but that it would struggle mightily in SEC play.
Needless to say, I was wrong. Again.
This year, I feel like I have a better grasp for what to expect from Derek Mason’s squad. But I still have plenty of questions.
Ten, in fact:
1. How big will “The Big 3” be?
My gut says Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Kalija Lipscomb and Jared Pinkney won’t quite gain the popularity of say, the Miami Heat’s or the Golden State Warriors’ Big Threes. But are they all capable of earning first-team All-SEC honors at season’s end? Absolutely. All of them finished in the top 3 in yardage among their respective position groups in the SEC last year (nobody else did that). But as long as the quarterback situation isn’t a total disaster, there’s no reason that Vandy’s trio should have anything short of spectacular senior seasons.
2. Who will win the starting quarterback job?
I’ve maintained the belief since Vandy’s spring game that it’ll be Riley Neal. I tend to think he wouldn’t have been pursued if the coaching staff felt confident in Deuce Wallace. Whoever wins the starting gig has major shoes to fill with the program’s most prolific quarterback, Kyle Shurmur, off to the NFL. And with the aforementioned “Big 3,” there will be plenty of pressure on the signal-caller not to hold back a potentially explosive offense.
3. What will Ke’Shawn Vaughn’s workload look like?
Last year, Vaughn only got 20-plus carries twice. Even if he doesn’t become a 250-carry guy, I can’t imagine that stat repeats itself. Last year, Vaughn was extremely efficient with his 157 carries. This year, I’d expect with a new offensive coordinator and a new quarterback that Vaughn is tasked with true feature back work. And if that happens, can he avoid the midseason injury bug unlike last year against Florida? We’ll see.
4. Will this offensive line take a step back?
I always worry about a team that loses its center and left tackle. There are 3 starters for Vandy to replace, and given the pressure on them to not only block for Vaughn but to also keep a new starting quarterback upright, their play could determine whether Mason’s group takes a step forward.
5. Who replaces Joejuan Williams?
A 6-4, shutdown cornerback isn’t an easy thing to replace at Vandy. Someone needs to step into that role with all of the talented receivers that the Commodores will see this year. The good news is Elijah Hamilton, Randall Haynie and Allan George are all experienced corners in Mason’s secondary.
6. Can the run defense just be average?
Finishing 94th against the run is not something Mason wants to repeat. The challenge is that 5 of the 7 leading tacklers are gone, including linebacker Jordan Griffin, who had 119 stops last year. Charles Wright’s absence definitely hurt last year, but it doesn’t change the reality. Vandy’s ceiling is limited to 6-7 wins if it can’t stop the run.
7. Will a potential high-flying offense result in bigger crowds?
Maybe this is wishful thinking, but I tend to think the best way to increase your home attendance is to have home-run hitting plays and light up the scoreboard. If you need an example of that, see Purdue since Jeff Brohm took over (Vandy will see that when it travels to West Lafayette in nonconference play). Vanderbilt was dead last in the SEC last year with 28,045 fans per game. With the promise of the offense and new athletic director Malcolm Turner laying the groundwork for a facilities upgrade, maybe the Music City gets a little more juice on fall Saturdays. Having an opener against Georgia certainly won’t hurt.
8. Is an 0-3 start imminent?
Speaking of that opener, man, nobody has a tougher 3-game stretch to start 2019 than Vandy:
- vs. Georgia
- at Purdue
- vs. LSU
It’s absolutely brutal. I expect Vandy to be a 3-score underdog against Georgia and LSU. And at Purdue, the Commodores still won’t be favored, though they’ll be given a better chance of pulling out a win. A 1-2 start would be a blessing with how daunting that slate is.
9. Can Vandy rise above the 6-win mark?
Last year was a good chance for that to happen with a favorable bowl matchup, but as it stands, Vandy is still searching for its first 7-win season of the post-James Franklin era. That’s entering Year 6, by the way. Consecutive bowl berths would be a first in the Mason era, and 3 of 4 seasons of postseason play would mark just the second time in program history that that feat happened. Will it happen? I’m not so sure. The East is expected to improve, but if the Commodores can sweep nonconference play, that suddenly looks a lot more realistic.
10. How will we talk about Mason at season’s end?
I like Mason. I think he’s the right fit for a place like Vandy, which needed someone who genuinely believes in everything he says. But I bring this up because if Vandy comes up short of the postseason and watches this talented group of skill players, some will wonder how a first-year athletic director is going to handle Mason’s contract. Mason did get an extension in February, but if he underperforms in Year 6, it’ll be interesting to what kind of faith Turner puts in him as the long-term guy.
What’s the best way for Mason to avoid that talk? Have his best season to date.