Better or worse? Previewing Vanderbilt’s offense in 2020
Editor’s note: This completes the preview series of every SEC team’s offense. Monday, we kick off our annual preview of each team’s defense, starting in the SEC West with Alabama.
The Vanderbilt Commodores finished the 2019 season with a disappointing 3-9 record. That included a 1-7 mark in SEC play, with their only win coming over Mizzou in one of the most surprising results of the SEC season.
Heading into the 2020 season, there’s not much reason for hope on the offensive side of the ball. This will be a major rebuilding year, and the fact that spring practices were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic really hurt them.
The schedule won’t do Vandy many favors, either. It’s hard to find more than 4 potential wins, and that might be generous.
If the Commodores do hit the 4-win mark (or go above it), it will likely be because of a strong defensive performance. With that said, let’s take a look at a few aspects of the Vandy offense and determine whether they’ll be better or worse than they were in 2019:
Who will be the starting quarterback? Well, at this point, your guess is probably as good as mine. There are 5 quarterbacks on the roster — freshmen Ken Seals and Mike Wright and juniors Jack Bowen, Jeremy Moussa and Danny Clark — and any of them could start.
Couple that uncertainty with a passing attack that lost WR Kalija Lipscomb and TE Jared Pinkney to the NFL and there are a ton of questions when it comes to the Commodores moving the ball through the air in 2020. Redshirt sophomore WR Cam Johnson not only is the team’s leading returning receiver (with 30 catches for 316 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2019), he’s also surprisingly Vanderbilt’s leading returning passer, having completed 1-of-2 for 16 yards last season.
Considering Vanderbilt finished 14th (last) in the SEC in scoring in 2019 (16.5 points per game), last in total offense (296.7 yards per game) and 13th in passing yards per game (172.0), this team couldn’t afford to lose much talent. In reality, Vandy lost almost all of its key offensive contributors.
It’s difficult to imagine things will get much better in Nashville this fall. The numbers could get a heck of a lot worse with an inexperienced quarterback and wide receivers who need more reps to realize their full potential.
Ke’Shawn Vaughn was pretty much a 1-man show last season. The Commodores had an SEC-low 1,496 rushing yards, and Vaughn accounted for 1,028 of those yards. That means Vaughn had 68.7% of Vandy’s rushing yards.
Now, he’s gone and the only key contributor returning to the backfield in 2020 is Keyon Brooks, who had 252 yards and a touchdown in 2019. The Commodores will also get Jamauri Wakefield back. He suffered a season-ending injury against Georgia in Week 1 last year. In 2018, he had 353 rushing yards and 2 scores.
Those are 2 promising backs, but the offensive line is going to need to improve if the running game is going to fare better. Tyler Steen is the only offensive lineman returning who started all 12 games last year. He’ll likely move from right tackle to left tackle. From there, the Commodores have some guys who got plenty of reps last year, but as mentioned throughout this article, that’s not exactly a great thing.
With the inexperience at the skill positions, the offensive line will have to take a huge leap forward for this rushing attack to strike fear into the hearts of defenses.
The Commodores lost kicker Riley Guay to graduation, but 2019 backup Javan Rice, who made his only field goal and all 4 of his extra points, is back. He’ll compete with Columbia graduate transfer Oren Milstein for the starting kicker spot.
Milstein holds 6 Columbia kicking records and hit 3 game-winning field goals. He has made 20-of-26 career attempts and 42-of-44 extra-point tries. That should be a solid competition between Rice and Milstein.
Meanwhile, in the punting game, 2019 starter Harrison Smith returns. He averaged 43 yards per punt last year. That was good for 8th among the 10 punters who qualified from the 2019 season. If he improves a bit, he could be a top-5 punter in the SEC.
This is by far the most stable section of the Vanderbilt offense. The kickers might not be kicking many extra points, but when they do take the field, they should be solid, no matter who wins the starting job.
Vandy finished last in the SEC in scoring last season at 16.5 points per game. As mentioned earlier, this is probably going to be another long year for Vandy fans when it comes to watching the offense. That isn’t to say it’s a hopeless cause, but the quarterback situation is a mess. In this day and age, you can’t win without solid quarterback play.
If I were the Commodores, I would start freshman Ken Seals or Michael Wright (both freshmen quarterbacks) to get them experience in 2020 with the hopes that they’ll improve in 2021 and 2022. I’d also make sure Keyon Brooks gets plenty of carries.
There are some things the Commodores can build on this year with the hopes of improving in the future, but even though things can’t get much worse for this team in terms of statistical ranks in the SEC, I think the overall numbers are going to be worse than they were in 2019.