Head coach Derek Mason's first season at Vanderbilt did not go well, to say the least. Coming off back-to-back nine-win seasons under former head coach James Franklin, the Commodores finished 3-9 and were beaten up and down the field with little sigh of relief. Any team that loses by 30 to Temple on its home field clearly has problems.
Yet, despite multiple blowout losses, the Commodores showed some bright spots along the way. As the season trudged along, Vanderbilt stayed within two scores of every SEC East opponent besides Georgia and Florida, proving the talent level wasn't as far behind as some thought. Now, with 18 starters returning from that team and significant coordinator upgrades, Vanderbilt hopes to return to its winning ways in 2015.
Vanderbilt's Five Biggest Fall Camp Storylines
1. Relying on Ralph & Co.
Although Vanderbilt struggled to put points on the board in 2014 (17.2 ppg, 116th nationally), the Commodores did find some success running the football. Ralph Webb, one of the SEC's most underappreciated players, racked up 902 yards on the ground with four touchdowns. Webb returns this season along with backup Dallas Rivers, who rushed for 218 yards, and four starters on the offensive line. The Commodores' ground attack will be relied on early in the season as the coaching staff figures out the quarterback situation.
2. Quarterback Competition
It seemed like Vanderbilt tried out nearly every player on the roster at quarterback last season. Luckily, the guy who produced the most, Johnny McCrary, returns after throwing for 985 yards and nine touchdowns in 2014. Wade Freebeck is expected to be the most likely candidate to push McCrary for the starting spot. Patton Robinette, famous for his jump pass touchdown against Tennessee in 2013, ended his playing career in March, citing health concerns. Vanderbilt's quarterbacks will have a pair of proven targets to throw to in tight end Steven Scheu and wide receiver C.J. Duncan.
3. Expect an Improved Offense
After last year's pains on offense, the Commodores decided to move in a new direction. Mason hired former Wisconsin offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, who also served as the Badgers' quarterbacks coach. In 2013, Wisconsin's offense under Ludwig averaged nearly 481 yards per game, setting a new school record. Ludwig is known for his ability to develop quarterbacks, with previous offensive coordinator stops at Oregon and Utah, among others. His expertise will be keen in the development of McCrary and Freebeck.
4. Solid in the Trenches
Vanderbilt is talented where it matters in the SEC — on the defensive line. The Commodores won't have the depth to compete with some of the conference's upper-echelon teams, but their front-end talent is as good as any. Defensive ends Caleb Azubike and Adam Butler are excellent pass rushers. This defense shouldn't have too difficult a time replacing nose guard Vince Taylor, as Jay Woods appears to be a perfect fit to clog gaps in the middle. Woods gained experience last season and moves to the interior after playing defensive end last season.
5. Mason Running the Show
While the defensive line appears to be a positive heading into the season, there are still questions to be answered in the secondary. Instead of hiring a new defensive coordinator, Mason decided it would be best to call the plays himself. It can't be stressed how important this move is for Vanderbilt. As Stanford's defensive coordinator before his arrival in Nashville, there really was no better option for the Commodores. His proven track record makes one wonder, why wasn't he calling the shots all along? Both of Vanderbilt's coordinators will be significant upgrades from 2014.