Better or worse? Previewing Vanderbilt's offense in 2019
Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a series previewing every SEC team’s offense. Coming Monday: Alabama.
“The Big 3.”
Know it. Learn it. Love it. Live it.
I’ve already said/written it about a dozen times this offseason, and I might just say it a dozen more.
“The Big 3.”
What is “The Big 3” and why am I referencing it in a column about Vandy’s 2019 offensive outlook? Commodores fans know this, but the general public who stumbled upon this to learn a thing or 2 about that team in Nashville might not.
“The Big 3” is Ke’Shawn Vaughn (AKA Red Mamba), Kalija Lipscomb and Jared Pinkney. All ranked in the top 3 in yards gained among SEC players at their respective position groups last year. As I wrote about earlier this offseason, nobody else in America can claim that feat.
So yes, consider that my way of saying I’m optimistic about the Commodores offense.
Passing offense: Worse
Wait, didn’t I just say that I was optimistic about the offense? I am. But I also think that Kyle Shurmur was one of the more under-appreciated quarterbacks in the country. He basically broke all of Jay Cutler’s records and became the leader of that offense the past 2 years. So replacing him? That won’t be easy.
I believe Ball State transfer Riley Neal will be the guy. That’s based on the notion that someone with essentially 4 years as a starter at the FBS level is the right person to enter a situation like Vandy’s. That is, one with talented, proven skill players.
The Commodores don’t necessarily need someone who can make the unbelievable throw. They just need someone who can read defenses, not take costly sacks and not be a total wild card at the position. Having said that, that’s partially why I think the passing offense, which ranked No. 55 last year, will take a slight step back.
Shurmur could make NFL throws. Neal is more mobile, but he’s more limited in what he can do to stretch the offense. Perhaps with Gerry Gdowski taking over the offense after spending the past 3 as quarterbacks coach, he’ll be able to scheme more receivers open and the Commodores will be more explosive.
For now, though, I won’t bet on a passing offense to improve a year after it loses its most prolific quarterback in school history.
Running offense: Better
Here’s the crazy thing. I’m not even sure that Derek Mason knew how good Vaughn was going to be. And after his surprising return, there’s reason to think he’ll be even more productive in 2019. Why? He averaged just 10 carries in Vandy’s first 7 games. Granted, he dealt with some health issues last year.
But yeah, as long as he’s on the field, Vaughn might average 20 touches a game in 2019. I’d recommend that considering he averaged 7.9 yards per carry last year.
If Vaughn can stay 100%, there’s reason to believe he’ll lead the SEC in rushing. We’re talking about someone who can hit the home run play, but is big enough and versatile enough to be a 3-down back. That might sound simple, but proven Power 5 backs in those 3 facets are rare.
In case you think I’m overhyping Vaughn, who should easily be a top 10 back in FBS to start the year, here’s a little reminder of what he’s capable of:
Again, the biggest things for Vaughn are health and having a quarterback who can prevent teams from loading the box. Still, the Vanderbilt running game was only No. 66 in the country last year. I feel like that number will improve, especially with 3 starting offensive linemen back.
Special teams: Better
Well, this is more a result of Vandy not having anywhere to go but up. That’s at least the case in the kicking game. The Commodores were 1 of 4 Power 5 teams that didn’t make at least 60% of their field goals last year. I know fans were frustrated with Ryley Guay, who will have to be better in order to keep his job.
Vandy will have some big shoes to fill at punter, where Parker Thome was a solid 1-year addition in 2019 (fourth in SEC, 13th in FBS in punt average).
There’s reason to believe that this year’s group will be more explosive in the return game with veteran Jamauri Wakefield back there. Maybe we could even see a little bit of Lipscomb getting back to his special teams roots as well? Perhaps that’s wishful thinking given how valuable he is in the passing game.
Whatever the case, Vandy has gone 4 seasons without taking a punt or kickoff to the house. Even just getting 1 of those in a key spot of an SEC game would be a major lift.
Call me an optimist, but I like it when a team has multiple proven guys who can hurt you in a variety of ways. Even if Neal isn’t as productive as Shurmur, I still believe he can be efficient enough to keep Vandy’s offense on the field. It’s strange how a year ago, the entire conversation was about who in the world was going to help out Shurmur. Now, it’s easily the strength of the team.
I get the feeling that Vandy is going through a bit of an identity shift. I know it’s still Mason, and there’s a tendency to think the Commodores will be fueled by their defense. But I’m high on this group putting up some points.
In 2014, Mason’s first year in Nashville, Vandy averaged 17 points per game. Dare I say the Commodores will put up close to double that in 2019? I think they can finish in the top third nationally in scoring.
My advice? Buy your stock in the Vandy offense now.