Derek Mason's Vanderbilt Commodores finally reached a bowl game in 2016 after getting hot at the end of the regular season. Vandy hammered Ole Miss 38-17 and knocked off rival Tennessee 45-34 in its last two games to reach the postseason. Although the Commodores got beaten badly by NC State in the Independence Bowl, last season in general felt like another positive step forward under Mason, whose teams have gotten better record-wise every year in his tenure.
Vanderbilt will try to build off last year's six wins and return roughly 17 starters, which is one of the highest totals among SEC teams. That includes all-time leading rusher Ralph Webb, as well as quarterback Kyle Shurmur. Defensively, the Commodores will bring back a key leader at linebacker in Oren Burks, as well as several experienced defensive backs. The outlook for 2017 could be bright, but there is plenty to work on in spring practice.
5 Storylines to Watch in Vanderbilt's Spring Practice
1. Kyle Shurmur’s Progression
News broke just this week that quarterback Wade Freebeck would not be returning for the Commodores this fall. Luckily Vanderbilt was able to find its full-time starter at the position last year in Shurmur, who enters his junior season. With plenty of quarterback issues in Mason’s first two years at the helm in Nashville, it will be nice to have some consistency for once headed into spring practice.
Shurmur threw for more than 2,400 yards and nine touchdowns in 2016. He was able to torch Tennessee’s defense for 416 passing yards in the final game of the regular season and approached 300 yards against Western Kentucky and Ole Miss. There’s plenty to be excited about with Shurmur, but he did throw 10 interceptions, which won’t cut it unless he increases his productivity in the other categories significantly. He’ll need to learn to make better decisions with the ball, and that starts this spring.
2. Ralph Webb’s Explosiveness
Webb is one of those guys who it seems has been on campus for 10 years. Maybe it’s because he’s been the backbone of Vanderbilt’s offense for the last three years. Webb enters his senior season as the Commodores’ best player after three consecutive campaigns of improvement. As a freshman, he ran for 907 yards, improved to 1,152 as a sophomore and finished fourth in the SEC with 1,283 rushing yards last season.
Webb’s explosiveness has always been the best part about his skill set — that ability to take the ball to the end zone on any given play. It will be interesting to see just how much better he’s gotten in one offseason. If his continuous improvement coupled with last year’s 13 touchdowns (tied for third in SEC) are any indication, Webb probably has found a way to become even more lethal in 2017.
3. A Defense Without Zach Cunningham
Without a doubt, the biggest loss on defense for the Commodores is at inside linebacker. Cunningham racked up some of the most impressive accolades in the history of Vanderbilt football and would likely rank near the top of any Vandy “GOAT” list. Cunningham was the first Commodore player in team history to earn unanimous first-team All-America recognition.
Cunningham led the SEC with 125 total tackles, a number that also ranked in the top 10 nationally. Nobody in the SEC had a better nose for where the football was going, and that’s not an easy thing to replicate. Senior Oren Burks should be a solid fill-in for Cunningham at inside linebacker, having racked up 59 stops himself last season. But the level of expectation at the position has certainly been raised.
4. Know Your Deficiencies
One problem Vanderbilt has had in spring practice over the last three years is not being able to identify its biggest weaknesses, particularly on offense. The Commodores have rolled into the fall the past three seasons with a vague identity offensively. The fact that they were able to find it toward the end of last season bodes well for what could be on the horizon.
But Mason noted recently that his team needs to see its deficiencies in the spring so it can bridge the gaps during summer workouts headed into the fall. This is critical for Vanderbilt, because if the Commodores are able to actually start the season with a positive approach instead of scrambling to find production on offense, this could be a superb team by November.
5. Ending with a “Spring Showcase”
The Commodores will be the first SEC team to try a “Spring Showcase” as opposed to a spring game on March 25. Vanderbilt will scrimmage and work on game situations in the showcase, but it won’t actually be a game. However, there will be a player autograph session afterward. Mason said he wanted to move away from the spring game concept but noted that this wouldn’t be much different.
Mason added that he wants to maximize time with this group, and it doesn’t help that the numbers are down this year. Vanderbilt currently has just 75 players on its roster, which could be another reason for not playing an actual spring game. Vanderbilt’s showcase is the only final spring practice event among SEC teams that will not be televised.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Vanderbilt in the SEC
The SEC East is improving, but it’s still anybody’s ball game on a given Saturday. Georgia would probably be listed as the close favorite at this point, but two-time defending division champion Florida isn’t far behind. Tennessee could be a contender, as well, but the Volunteers may have missed their best chance to win the division last year. Kentucky has a lot of talent returning while South Carolina should only get better under Will Muschamp. Missouri probably won’t be very good.
Honestly, with 17 returning starters including arguably the SEC’s best running back, as well as one of the conference’s top defensive units, the Commodores shouldn’t be overlooked as a dark horse contender in the East. They’ve shown they can beat Georgia and Tennessee, and they’ve show constant improvement every year under head coach Derek Mason. Now that the Commodores have achieved a taste of the postseason, seven or eight wins and the ability to compete for the division should be the next step.
— Written by Cody McClure, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a radio host on Sports Radio 1180 WVLZ in Knoxville, Tenn. Follow him on Twitter @CodyMcClureCFB.