Derek Mason’s first season at Vanderbilt wasn’t easy. The Commodores did not win a game in SEC play and two of their three non-conference wins came by three points or less. However, as the 2015 season approaches, there’s reason to expect improvement out of Vanderbilt in Mason’s second year. The losses in the senior class were minimal, and the Commodores return 17 starters. Mason is taking over the play-calling duties on defense, while Andy Ludwig takes over the offensive controls.
Vanderbilt concluded spring drills with its annual scrimmage on Saturday. What transpired this offseason so far with the Commodores? I asked Adam Sparks (@AdamSparks) of The Tennessean to help us preview Vanderbilt’s offseason and answer some of the key questions and storylines to watch:
1. Derek Mason made a lot of changes after the 2014 season. Which of the coaching hires or other offseason moves do you think will have the biggest impact on this team next season?
That’s close to a tie between Derek Mason naming himself defensive play-caller or the hiring of Andy Ludwig as the new offensive coordinator. I’ll give Ludwig the tiebreaker because the offense struggled so mightily last season. Ludwig has not tipped his hand too much, but it’s apparent that he sees Vanderbilt’s potential strength in the ground game like the one he directed at Wisconsin. The personnel sets up that way, as well. Ralph Webb, who broke Vanderbilt’s freshman rushing record last season, is back. The offensive line could be improved. And the Commodores have more proven talent at tight end than wide receiver.
Ludwig’s chief job is creating an offensive identity. Last season under Karl Dorrell, the offense never developed a clear-cut strength – run or pass. If the quarterback position stabilizes, it should be a little easier for Ludwig to turn the wheel in some direction.
2. Four different quarterbacks started games for Vanderbilt in 2014 and there’s plenty of uncertainty here this spring. Is there a skill-set new coordinator Andy Ludwig wants out of his quarterbacks? And has there been any separation among the options this spring?
Ludwig wants an accurate passer and some mobility in his QB. Neither Mason nor Ludwig confirmed that Patton Robinette would be the starter, but it was apparent by spring’s end that he was the No. 1 guy. Ludwig likes Robinette’s football IQ, his quick understanding of the offense, his accuracy on short to intermediate passes and his running ability. Robinette has struggled throwing the deep ball, which Ludwig highlighted as a flaw that needs to be fixed before the regular season.
Robinette could be overtaken in fall camp by Johnny McCrary, but Ludwig would rather settle on the starter sooner than later and secure the depth chart. That stability would certainly be a welcomed sight for the Commodores, who traded out signal callers routinely last season.
3. In addition to the quarterback concerns, the receiving corps is also under the spotlight this offseason. Are there any players ready to take a step forward in their development to help C.J. Duncan and Latevius Rayford in the passing game?
Duncan and Rayford are both solid receivers, but they need help. Rayford is a tough kid who doesn’t mind catching the ball in traffic. Duncan can catch and run or occasionally go deep. But for the most part, Vanderbilt’s receivers struggled to get separation off the line of scrimmage and stretch the field last season. Duncan may develop into that guy, but he also saw some time at running back in spring. Coaches, including Ludwig, are intrigued by the potential of Trent Sherfield. The 6-foot-1 speedster had only one catch last season, but he put together a strong spring and appears to have a bigger role in the revamped offense.
4. With nine starters back and few personnel departures, the defense has a chance to improve with Mason calling the plays in 2015. Who are a few players to watch this season that could have a breakout year?
The linebackers are legit high-caliber SEC players. Sophomores Nigel Bowden and Zach Cunningham and junior Stephen Weatherly are among Vanderbilt’s best performers are any position. Defensive end Caleb Azubike needs to settle in as a pass rusher after a year of uncertainty playing at both defensive end and outside linebacker. The secondary should be improved, as well.
Mason’s defense will be more aggressive than the 2014 version. Expect more sacks, more tackles-for-loss and more turnovers. All those were lacking last season, but Mason will take more chances as the play-caller. The aforementioned three linebackers give Vanderbilt a lot of speed and length, which should suit Mason’s brand of defense well.
5. If Vanderbilt wants to be a running team, will Ralph Webb be a one-man show?
Webb will get the bulk of the carries, but Ludwig wants depth at running back. Webb rushed for 912 yards as a freshman despite getting no help from the passing game. Dallas Rivers also showed promise as a freshman, and he will be used as a 227-pound power back. CJ Duncan could see a little time at running back, but the better bet is that he’ll mostly stay at wide receiver.
The wild card will be Darrius Sims. He broke two kick returns for TDs against South Carolina last season, and he also scored on an interception as a defensive back. Sims can play in all three phases, but he is supposed to focus on running back and kick returner in 2015. The hope is that Sims can add a dynamic quality that last year’s offense lacked. Ludwig said some incoming freshmen could also jump into the mix at running back.
Athlon Sports' Spring Outlook on Vanderbilt:
Vanderbilt should show improvement in Derek Mason’s second season. With 17 starters back, along with promising players on both sides of the ball, the Commodores will be more competitive in SEC play. If a quarterback emerges this offseason, and Mason finds the right mix on defense, this team should exceed last year’s win total. Of course, winning a game in the rugged SEC won’t be easy, and Vanderbilt plays tricky non-conference games against Houston and Western Kentucky. Improvement should be noticeable for Mason in 2015. But bowl eligibility is probably a year away.