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Vanderbilt Commodores 2016 Spring Football Preview

Ralph Webb

Ralph Webb

Vanderbilt didn't get to a bowl game in 2015, but it improved. The Commodores went 4-8 but managed to knock off SEC East rivals Kentucky and Missouri. They showed improvement from head coach Derek Mason's first year and proved that on a given day, they could play with the big boys, which was evident in a 9-7 loss to Florida.

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The Commodores got better throughout the season, especially on defense. When Mason decided to call the shots on that side of the ball it helped the offense, too. Players were more comfortable knowing their defense had their back, thus the offense performed better at times.

However, inconsistency was still a major problem for Vanderbilt. Quarterback play lacked stability and outside of Ralph Webb, there wasn't a ton of production from the running game. Luckily, the Commodores should have some spring solutions for their areas of need.

5 Storylines to Watch in Vanderbilt Spring Practice

1. Defense Could Go From Good to Great

The Commodores will return several key pieces from a defensive unit that ranked No. 28 in college football last season. Up front, Nifae Lealao, Jay Woods and Adam Butler are all coming back. Stud defensive end Caleb Azubike is gone, but the depth on the defensive line coming into this spring should be far better than it was last year.

The linebacker position takes a bit of a hit, especially with the loss of Stephen Weatherly, but rising junior Zach Cunningham has the potential to be a force on the outside. The secondary remains intact for the most part and it will be even better with newcomer Joejuan Williams in the mix. He could make an early impact in the spring at corner.

2. Stability at Quarterback

For the first time in Mason's tenure at Vanderbilt, the team could have a decent quarterback. Kyle Shurmur wasn't Tom Brady last year, but he showed signs of a bright future. That's something Vanderbilt fans have been pleading for under Mason. Quarterback play has been one of the few things holding this team back.

Shurmur started five games last season and threw for more than 500 yards and five touchdowns. For the most part, he made good decisions with the ball for a freshman. Given his youth, he has plenty of time to learn the system and work on his mechanics with offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig. That improvement will begin this spring.

3. New Physicality Up Front

On the offensive line, Vanderbilt returns at least three starters and plenty of young backups from a year ago. The Commodores' offensive line looked stellar at times when opening holes for Webb, but it needed to get more physical as a whole. The offensive line is another area where youth has halted progress — some guys have just been undersized.

Fortunately, coming into the spring, Vanderbilt has beefed up quite a bit on the line of scrimmage. Part of the reason for that could be attributed to new offensive line coach Cameron Norcross. He was hired in January to ensure that Vanderbilt's "big uglies" find a mean streak and become more aggressive.

4. Offensive Playmakers Returning From Injury

The injury bug was no stranger to the Commodores last season. While teams like Arkansas and Georgia were plagued with significant injuries, Vandy had a few of its own. Most notably, wide receiver C.J. Duncan went down with a torn ACL before the season started.

Duncan, as well as tight ends Jared Pinkney and DeAndre Woods, are on the roster this spring and should help Shurmur tremendously in the passing game. Offensive tackle Andrew Jelks, who also missed last season with a torn ACL, is back in the mix to anchor the Commodores' offensive line.

5. Skill Position Experience
Things are really looking up for Vanderbilt on offense. Not only do the Commodores get the above-mentioned playmakers back in the spring, they also return their top receiver, Trent Sherfield. Filling in for Duncan in 2015, Sherfield caught 51 passes for 659 yards. He could be one of Shurmur's favorite targets.

But with all the talk of Vanderbilt's potentially revamped passing game, don't forget about the running back. The Commodores have one of the best ball carriers in the SEC in Webb. He is on pace to break several school rushing records with more than 2,000 career rushing yards coming into his third season.

Pre-Spring Vanderbilt Outlook in the SEC

The good news for Vanderbilt is that the SEC East, as a whole, is still down heading into spring practice. The Commodores' in-state rival, Tennessee, is probably the favorite to win the division at this point. Florida is coming off a good year, but is loaded with question marks. Georgia will be talented, but the Bulldogs have a new head coach. And Kentucky, Missouri and South Carolina don't seem to be headed anywhere too fast.

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The door is open for Vanderbilt to take the next step. It still doesn't have a roster equipped to beat the best teams in the SEC, but you can bet it has a stifling defense. And on paper, it looks as though the offense is coming along nicely. Don't be surprised to see Vandy in a bowl game come December.

— Written by Cody McClure, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a radio host and lead SEC Writer for Three Point Stance Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @CodyMcClureCFB.