Derek Mason's tenure at Vanderbilt got off to a rough start, as the Commodores won just three games overall and went 0-8 in the SEC last season. With a year under his belt and some coaching staff changes, Mason is hoping for more success in Year 2, but the life in the SEC is never easy, especially for an offense that was among the worst in the nation in 2014.
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Previewing Vanderbilt’s Offense for 2015
Vanderbilt’s offensive issues were well chronicled throughout the 2014 season. The Commodores ranked last in the SEC in both total offense and scoring offense by a wide margin and ranked in the bottom 10 in the nation in both categories as well. Perhaps the most troubling stat? The fact that Vanderbilt scored only nine offensive touchdowns in its eight SEC games.
Coach Derek Mason addressed the offensive issues shortly after the season by firing Karl Dorrell and hiring Andy Ludwig to run the Commodores’ attack. Ludwig’s first order of business is to identify a quarterback between holdovers Johnny McCrary and Wade Freebeck. Both started multiple games last year; neither played well enough to stake a claim as the no-doubt-about-it starter entering 2015.
The Commodores are thin at tailback but are in good shape at the top of the depth chart. Ralph Webb, who rushed for 912 yards as a redshirt freshman, impressed Ludwig during the spring. C.J. Duncan, a former high school quarterback, headlines a talented young corps of wide receivers. Keep an eye on sophomore Trent Sherfield and redshirt freshman Ronald Monroe. Tight end Steven Scheu, the team’s top pass-catcher in 2014, suffered a broken leg in the spring. His return for Week 1 is in doubt.
A veteran offensive line was expected to be a team strength in 2014. That, however, was not the case. There were other issues, of course, but the Commodores averaged a league-worst 3.4 yards per carry and struggled to protect the quarterbacks. Mason is confident that this group, which returns four starters, can rebound.
Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128
Previewing Vanderbilt’s Defense for 2015
About a month after he fired defensive coordinator David Kotulski, Mason named himself as the Commodores’ new defensive coordinator. “I am loving it,” he said during the spring. “I don’t know why I ever gave it up. Probably best decision I have made is to come back and run the defense.”
The defensive line is home to three of the most talented players on the roster — ends/tackles Adam Butler and Caleb Azubike and nose guard Nifae Lealao — but this unit is still a work in progress.
Stephen Weatherly proved to be an ideal fit as pass-rushing outside linebacker in the new scheme, leading the team in both tackles for a loss (12.5) and sacks (4.5). Inside linebacker Nigel Bowden was as good as advertised as a redshirt freshman, leading the team with 78 tackles despite battling various injuries. Josh Smith, the prize of the 2015 recruiting class, is considered a natural inside linebacker but might have an easier time finding early playing time on the outside.
The Commodores struggled in pass defense — allowing a league-high 7.6 yards per attempt and intercepting only six passes — due in part to inconsistent play from the cornerback position. Junior Torren McGaster is entrenched as one of the starters, but the other spot is wide open.
Previewing Vanderbilt’s Specialists for 2015
Kicker Tommy Openshaw was solid in his first season, hitting 8-of-11, including all six from under 40 yards. Colby Cooke averaged 42.4 yards per punt, but the Commodores ranked last in the SEC and 86th nationally in net punting with a 36.2-yard average.
It’s difficult to put a positive spin on Mason’s first year as a head coach. Coming off back-to-back nine-win seasons, Vanderbilt slumped to 3–9 overall and failed to win a game in the SEC. Mason’s second Vanderbilt team should be improved, thanks in part to more experience on both sides of the ball and upgrades on the coaching staff. But the Commodores will have to be drastically better, especially on offense, to make a move in the SEC East, where seemingly every program — with the possible exception of South Carolina — is on the uptick.