Progress was noticeable for the Commodores under coach Derek Mason last season. And with 12 starters back, Vanderbilt could build on last year's record and have a shot at a bowl game in 2016. Star running back Ralph Webb will carry the load offensively and expect him to push for all-conference honors. Linebacker Zach Cunningham is one of the nation's best at his position and anchors a defense that will be among the best in the SEC.
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Previewing Vanderbilt’s Offense
Kyle Shurmur started five of the last six games at quarterback as a true freshman and showed enough promise to earn the unofficial title of presumptive 2016 starter. Shurmur, however, will receive a challenge from junior Wade Freebeck, a four-game starter as a true freshman in 2014 who slipped down the QB food chain last fall and played in only one game. He’s back in the mix after a strong spring.
Ralph Webb has been a consistent producer on an inconsistent offense. He followed a 907-yard freshman season with 1,152 yards as a sophomore — the second-highest single-season total in school history.
As recently as 2013, Vanderbilt’s starting lineup featured two future NFL wide receivers — Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Krause. The last two years, however, have seen a huge struggle at the position. There is hope for significant improvement in 2016 as the Commodores welcome back three key players who missed most or all of last season with injuries — wide receiver C.J. Duncan (441 yards receiving in 2014) and tight ends DeAndre Woods and Jared Pinkney.
The Commodores’ offensive line was hit hard by a rash of injuries last fall — none more damaging than the torn ACL that sidelined Andrew Jelks, a two-year starter at left tackle. Jelks could return to tackle or take over at center, where the Dores must replace the dependable Spencer Pulley. Vanderbilt welcomes back five other linemen who started at least two games in 2015. The coaches believe sophomore tackle Justin Skule has All-SEC potential.
Previewing Vanderbilt’s Defense
Whether it was due to Derek Mason taking on a larger role or simply being in the second season in the new 3–4 alignment, Vanderbilt’s defense showed drastic improvement in 2015. Mason tweaked his defense in the spring and introduced the Star, a hybrid defensive back/linebacker that will allow the Commodores to handle spread offenses out of their base defense. The position is tailor-made for junior Oren Burks, a two-year starter at free safety.
Inside linebacker Zach Cunningham was perhaps the most surprising player in the SEC last season, emerging as a first-team all-conference pick despite not starting until Week 3. A gifted athlete, the 6'4", 230-pound Cunningham led the team with 103 tackles and made countless big plays in short-yardage situations.
Mason says he likes to have at least five cornerbacks ready to play. Good thing the Commodores have quality depth at the position. Torren McGaster, a physical 6'1", 200-pound senior, headlines the group.
Previewing Vanderbilt’s Specialists
Vanderbilt struggled on special teams last season — not something you want to see out of a team with a talent deficit. Mason responded by firing special teams coach Charles Bankins (who also coached running backs) and hiring Jeff Genyk, a former head coach at Eastern Michigan and assistant at Wisconsin and Northwestern (among other schools).
Progress. That’s all Vanderbilt fans were looking for in 2015 after a disappointing — and that is putting kindly — first season under Mason. Mission (mostly) accomplished. Vanderbilt improved its record from 3–9 overall and 0–8 in the SEC to 4–8 and 2–6. In 2014, the Commodores were outscored by an average of 22.6 points per game in SEC play; last fall, that number dropped to 9.7 per game.
To take the next step — return to a bowl game for the first time since 2013 — Vanderbilt will need to improve significantly on offense. Despite the aforementioned “progress,” the Commodores still struggled to move the ball with any consistency. They ranked 117th in the nation in total offense (326.5 ypg), 124th in scoring offense (15.2 ppg) and topped 400 yards in only one SEC game (411 vs. Tennessee).