7 reasons Vanderbilt fans should feel good about 2017
Despite the disappointing bowl effort, there was plenty of momentum to close the regular season for Vanderbilt. There’s no doubt Derek Mason will use the brief comeback in the Independence Bowl as offseason motivation, not to mention the close of SEC play.
Here are seven reasons to look forward to Vanderbilt’s 2017 season:
1. Kyle Shurmur has another year to develop: Despite 18 starts, the quarterback will be just a junior next season. He had a strong finish to the regular season with a career-high 416 yards against Tennessee. Entering the bowl game, he had passed for 2,251 yards with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions. His four highest passing-yard games in SEC play came in his last four — against Auburn (221), Missouri (252), Ole Miss (273) and Tennessee.
2. Momentum from the end of the regular season: The Commodores finished 4-2, led by the nation’s best red-zone defense. The offense also produced with the No. 2-ranked red zone efficiency nationally. Overall, Vanderbilt went 6-6 with a 3-5 mark in SEC play, Mason’s best record during his three years in Nashville. Back-to-back wins against Ole Miss and the Volunteers to close the season made the Commodores bowl eligible, took Mason off the hot seat, and drew a letter from the Vanderbilt vice chancellor.
3. Blossoming receiving corps: With rising sophomore Kalija Lipscomb, who had 25 catches and two touchdowns, the receivers might be the deepest position group on the team, and definitely a strength. Rising seniors Trent Sherfield, C.J. Duncan and Caleb Scott combined for just one touchdown, but there should be no shortage of depth in the passing game.
4. Contract extension for Mason: Athletics director David Williams has hinted at a contract extension for Derek Mason. While Mason’s contract details are not public, tax records suggest a $2.38 million salary in 2014, and total pay of $2.55 million. The end-of-the-season momentum at least takes away any questions about his job security.
5. Recruiting: Vanderbilt has three commits from players ranked in the top 20 of their respective states. The highlight so far is quarterback Jacob Free, a pro-style quarterback from Brantley (Ala.) High School. He chose Vanderbilt over offers from Louisville and Western Kentucky.
6. Building depth: Vanderbilt played only five true freshmen during the regular season, about half the number they did each of the previous two seasons: Lipscomb, Joejuan Williams, Bailey McElwain, Sam Loy and Donaven Tennyson. Four starters on the offensive line — Will Holden at left tackle, Barrett Gouger at center, Bruno Reagan at right guard and Justin Skule at right tackle — started all 12 games.
7. Few key players (and coaches) to replace: The only key departure is expected to be star junior linebacker Zach Cunningham, a potential first-round NFL pick. Given Ralph Webb’s announcement to return, Mason doesn’t have many holes to fill. A year after Cameron Norcross joined the staff as offensive line coach, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig was mentioned for the Nevada job but didn’t get it. So, at this point, the staff remains stable.