Vanderbilt football: 5-step improvement plan for 2020
Derek Mason nearly lost his job in 2019 at Vanderbilt, but an inspired effort against Missouri likely played a big part in the administration giving him at least 1 more season.
Vandy finished 3-9, including 1-7 in the SEC, the worst record since Mason’s first season in 2014.
Mason is about as candid as any coach around and offered this assessment after the Tennessee game.
“We will continue to look at the roster as we get back and go recruit and hit the offseason like the way we should,” Mason said. “(We) will improve this roster, make it better, and then figure out what exactly is next for us because I feel like there is a lot there.”
Here are 5 issues facing Mason as he enters the offseason:
1. Find a quarterback
The departing playmakers are a big void, and while QB Riley Neal won’t be in the mix, there are options for Mason. Among them, Deuce Wallace, who started 1 game, Allan Walters, who was just 2-for-9 passing with an interception, and Mo Hasan, who missed the final 5 games after he suffered a concussion. The team also has a commitment from Ken Seals, a 3-star QB from Texas. There’s also former North Carolina quarterback Cade Fortin, who reportedly narrowed his list to Kansas, Syracuse and Vanderbilt. Even before the rash of injuries, mostly concussions, Vanderbilt struggled to find production at this position. Mason understands that’s imperative to change the trajectory of the program in 2020.
2. Major changes to the offense
Speaking of recruiting, Mason maintains that will help spur changes to the program, something he vowed would come after the Tennessee loss. He noted that the team ran a 2-back formation offense 2 years ago, and didn’t at all in 2019. Offensive coordinator Gerry Gdowski will be under increased scrutiny to find a spark in 2020. Gdowski already drew the ire of the fan base with play-calling early in the 1st quarter. After a holding call against Vanderbilt on its 3rd drive, Gdowski called a run on 2nd-and-20, and a 5-yard pass on 3rd-and-17. Tennessee scored on its next drive to take a 7-3 lead.
“It’s just about morphing into what we need to be and a lot of that starts with recruiting,” Mason said, according to the Tennessean. “We will be a different offense in 2020. That’s for sure. That’s where I want to go. I understand exactly what it looks like, and now what it’s time to do is start moving.”
3. Coaching staff tweaks
Mason dealt with a fair amount of turnover last season, as several coaches came and went, even after being hired and before the season started, and changed roles within the staff. Chief among them is Gdowski, the first-year offensive coordinator, who has been with the program going on 7 years, and 2nd-year defensive coordinator Jason Tarver. It’s difficult to tell how much credit or blame they get as the defense was No. 13 in the SEC in 2019 and 2018, and gave up just under 440 yards per game both seasons. The offense was dramatically worse, with a dropoff of 411 yards to 297.
4. Defensive growth
A glance at Vanderbilt’s top tacklers from 2019 reveals a lot of youth in that production. What’s more, every defensive starter has eligibility remaining and 5 were freshmen or sophomores. Freshman CB Jaylen Mahoney, who had an interception and 3 tackles against Tennessee, might be the poster child of the group. That defense also held Tennessee QB Jarrett Guarantano to an 0-for-7 start.
5. New blood at the skill positions
On the surface, it appears as if Vanderbilt will be in a hole at the skill positions with the losses of Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Kalija Lipscomb and Jared Pinkney, but there is plenty of promise in the likes of Keyon Brooks, Ja’Veon Marlow, Cam Johnson and C.J. Bolar.
Brooks, for example, had 70 yards against Tennessee on 13 carries after Vaughn left with an injury. Johnson was the 2nd-leading receiver and had touchdown catches against Purdue, Missouri and South Carolina.