Vanderbilt football: Analyzing the Commodores' starting lineup
It could have been much worse.
Had Vanderbilt’s “Big 3” decided to leave school early for the NFL, we’d be talking about a completely different team. But fortunately for the Commodores, those guys are back. That’s 3 of Vandy’s 11 returning starters for 2019.
While those 3 have their jobs won, there’s plenty of intrigue for the Vandy depth chart, most notably at the quarterback position. Will Ball State grad transfer Riley Neal step in and win the job or will Deuce Wallace return from his season-long suspension to lead the high-powered offense in 2019? Whoever it is has major shoes to fill after Kyle Shurmur finished his carer all over the Vandy record book.
So as we head into 2019, let’s break down the quarterback battle, as well as the rest of the Commodores’ depth chart:
QB: Riley Neal
RB: Ke’Shawn Vaughn
Neal has been my bet to win the job all offseason because of his experience. Granted, Wallace has experience in the system. But Neal seems like he’d be the best bet to execute what Gerry Gdowski is looking for. I don’t want to throw around the “game manager” term too liberally, but the offense will be built around Vaughn. Neal won’t be asked to make 35 throws per game.
I’ll take a 4-year starter with experience against Power 5 teams who has a proven track record as a passer. And hopefully for Vandy’s sake, Neal will benefit from being surrounded by so much talent.
LT: Devin Cochran
LG: Tyler Steen
C: Grant Miller
RG: Saige Young
RT: Cole Clemens
In some form, those were the starters in camp so far. There are still a lot of moving pieces on this offensive line. Cochran and Clemens are experienced starters, though it’s uncertain where the latter will be. Young will likely return to one of the guard spots after he had his season cut short while Steen and Miller appear to be battling for starting jobs. Steen is a wild card because he was moved from the defensive line, where Vandy certainly has more depth.
Whoever and wherever this group starts at, the objective is clear — keep a new starting quarterback upright and pave the way for Vaughn to hit those home-run plays.
Wide receivers/tight end
WR: Kalija Lipscomb
WR: C.J. Bolar
WR: Chris Pierce OR Amir Abdur-Rahman
TE: Jared Pinkney
The aforementioned Lipscomb (pictured) and Pinkney will lead the way for a unit that’s poised to put up some big numbers in 2019. With all the attention on the Big 3, the question is what Vandy will get outside of that. Can Bolar make another step up after being the third option in the passing game last year? And can Abdur-Rahman build on his strong finish to his true freshmen season?
The good news is that whoever starts at quarterback, there are far more proven outside weapons than there were at this time last year.
DE: Dayo Odeyingbo
DT: Drew Birchmeier
DE: Cameron Tidd
As I said, there’s definitely experience and depth here. All 3 starters returned after being full-time starters last year. Odeyingbo had a solid season but could stand to be a bit more consistent as a pass-rusher, and Birchmeier should improve after getting full reps as a sophomore.
It’ll be interesting to see how Vandy’s depth develops. Former 4-star recruit Rutger Reitmaier is hoping to make a bigger impact in his second season in Derek Mason’s system. True freshman Daevion Davis could earn significant snaps after enrolling early and impressing the coaching staff, as could Florida grad transfer Malik Langham. Well, if Langham is cleared for immediate eligibility.
OLB: Caleb Peart
ILB: Dimitri Moore
ILB: Colin Anderson
OLB: Kenny Hebert
This is an area of concern. Three of the top 4 linebackers from last year are gone, including leading tackler Jordan Griffin. Moore is the only starter back from a group that struggled in SEC play (though not as badly as 2017). Hebert and Peart had just 14 tackles apiece last season as rotational guys, and Anderson was hampered throughout 2018.
Perhaps Vandy will turn to East Mississippi Community College transfer Lashawn Paulino-Bell on the outside. He and Alston Orji are both highly-regarded recruits who could provide a big boost with breakout seasons.
CB: Dontye Carriere-Williams Jr.
CB: Cameron Watkins
SS: Tae Daley Jr.
FS: Frank Coppet Jr.
Gone is No. 1 cornerback Joejuan Williams. The lengthy 2nd-round pick left a big hole in the outside. That’ll be filled by a pair of transfers, Carriere-Williams via JUCO and Watkins via Illinois, where he started half the season in Lovie Smith’s defense (it worked out well for Vandy the last time someone left Illinois for Mason’s squad). There’s more experience on the back end of the defense, where Daley and Coppet made an impact last year. Coppet had 3 interceptions as a part-time starter last year and figures to be the best ball-hawking defensive back on Vandy’s roster without Williams.
K: Ryler Guay
P: Harrison Smith
RS: Justice Shelton-Mosley
Guay struggled last year but is still pegged as the starter after converting every extra point. Smith is the likely replacement for Parker Thome.
The return game is where it gets interesting. Shelton-Mosley was brought in as a grad transfer from Harvard to be the return specialist after he earned FCS All-America honors there last year. But there’s apparently a chance that Vaughn could get some looks as a punter returner, as well, despite the fact that he has yet to record a return at Illinois or Vandy. Lipscomb has also been getting reps at the position, though likely just as an insurance plan if something happens to Shelton-Mosley or if the Big 3 is struggling to get touches in space.
It’s a strange roster dynamic because it isn’t quite a youth movement. If the faces of the program end up being the Big 3 and Neal, that’s 3 seniors and a grad transfer. But at the same time, there are question marks all over. The offensive line might shuffle several rotations, the linebackers are mostly unproven, as are the cornerbacks.
But if Vandy can be average on defense and find a quarterback who doesn’t turn the ball over, Vandy has the potential to compete with the better teams in the division like it did last year.