5 biggest concerns I have about Vanderbilt in 2019
Dare I say, Vanderbilt has some juice heading into 2019.
“The Big 3” has been a fixture of the SEC offseason. That group, which consists of skill players Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Kalija Lipscomb and Jared Pinkney, is the backbone of this 2019 Vanderbilt squad. If we’re being honest, the same was true in 2018.
That’s clearly a strength of Derek Mason’s group. But the weaknesses are what we’re going to focus on today.
If you’re a Vandy fan, these are the 5 biggest concerns you have about 2019:
1. The quarterback situation
My guess is that Riley Neal is the guy. In the spring game, the Ball State grad transfer looked more than capable of being the new signal-caller in a post-Kyle Shurmur world. But that was a small sample size. What Neal has over Deuce Wallace is obvious — reps.
Having said that, it’s fair to have concerns about both Wallace and Neal because of “The Big 3.” With as good of a trio of skill players as Vandy’s had in quite some time, the fear is that neither quarterback knows how to handle the Ferrari. The last thing the Commodores want is to look back on this 2019 team and wonder how much better it could’ve been with just average quarterback play.
My guess? A change of scenery allows Neal to get out of his bubble in Muncie and he does what’s needed to make sure he isn’t what holds the offense back.
2. The offensive line
Replacing 3 starters is tougher at a place like Vandy than say, Georgia. Duh. The Commodores won’t have the benefit of returning 5 starters with experience like they did last year.
This year’s group has to replace center Bruno Reagan and left tackle Justin Skule. Those were arguably the 2 most important guys on that unit not only blocking for Vaughn but anchoring a pass rush that did an above-average job protecting Shurmur.
Mason is confident in the new-look group despite the lack of SEC starting experience. The good news is that Devin Cochran and Cole Clemens are back while Saige Young is expected to be a starter after being a rotational guard last year, and the Commodores added South Alabama grad transfer Rowan Godwin.
It feels like one or two All-SEC guys will need to emerge for this offense to reach its full potential.
3. The run defense
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — if you can’t stop the run in the SEC, your team’s ceiling is lower than you even realize. That was a major issue for Vandy last year (No. 94 nationally), and it’s hard to envision a scenario in which it doesn’t hurt Mason’s defense this year.
Vandy has to replace leading tackler Jordan Griffin, as well as extremely solid secondary tacklers Joejuan Williams and Ladarius Wiley. There’s no Charles Wright on this defense, either. At least not yet.
It’s perhaps a bit telling that Mason didn’t elect to bring a single defensive player to SEC Media Days. Sure, “The Big 3” is all the rage, but I’d still say that’s not an ideal sign for a defense that was a liability in some key moments in SEC play last year.
4. The shutdown corner, or lack thereof
Guys like Williams don’t show up on Vandy’s doorstep every day. That’s just a harsh reality. As a 6-4, 2nd-round cornerback with the ability to line up against a team’s go-to wideout, Williams might be even tougher to replace than Shurmur.
It isn’t just replacing Williams that’ll be difficult. The secondary lost Wiley and Donovan Sheffield, who had a combined 121 tackles, 8 passes defended and 4 forced fumbles. They might not have been elite cover guys, but they could make plays in space.
Now, this new-look group will have a daunting task ahead. And with that schedule, they’ll see no shortage of elite wideouts:
- Rondale Moore, Purdue
- Justin Jefferson, LSU
- Bryan Edwards, South Carolina
- Van Jefferson, Florida
- Lynn Bowden, Kentucky
- Jauan Jennings, Tennessee
And that’s not including the 5-star wideouts that Vandy will have to cover in that opener against Georgia. Speaking of that …
5. The most daunting 3-game start in America
There’s nobody who has a tougher 3-game stretch to start 2019 than what Vandy has. Period.
- vs. Georgia
- at Purdue
- vs. LSU
That’s a pair of preseason top-7 teams who went to New Year’s 6 Bowls, as well as a road game against a bowl team that returns one of the most electric players in America in Moore.
(When I tweeted about that, I had BYU fans in my mentions. They tried to tell me that vs. Utah, at Tennessee and vs. USC was a tougher 3-game stretch. Yes, they really tried to argue that a 3-game stretch that included one 2018 bowl team was tougher than Vandy’s start that features 2 New Year’s 6 Bowl participants. What a world.)
Here’s what concerns me. There’s a strong possibility that Vandy is the underdog in all 3 of those games. I expect that to be the case. The Commodores could play extremely well and be in a tough early-season hole at 0-3. That could present a tricky task for Mason by the time September is over.
It’s not that anyone is predicting Vandy to win the division or compete nationally. But keeping a locker room focused during a humbling start is an absolute necessity to prevent the year from spiraling. The schedule gets easier. Vandy should get better, too.
It’ll be interesting to see the way this brutal 3-game stretch shapes the narrative of Vandy’s 2019 season.