The Vanderbilt Commodores return to the field on Monday for the first of their 15 spring practices, which will run until the end of March.
After a disappointing 5-7 season that left the Commodores sixth in the SEC East — ahead only of Tennessee, who went winless in conference play — a rebound is all but the expectation in Nashville. Head coach Derek Mason enters his fifth season at the helm looking for a spark after his Commodores won only two of their final nine games.
5 Storylines to Watch During Vanderbilt’s Spring Practice
1. Finding a new feature back
The running back spot is the primary area where replacing top talent is crucial. The departure of Ralph Webb means that the Commodores will be in search of a starting running back for the first time in four seasons. Mason and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig — who also serves as the running backs coach — will watch as Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Khari Blasingame, Josh Crawford and Jamauri Wakefield all compete for the job. Vaughn is ready to make his debut after sitting out last year following his transfer from Illinois. In two seasons with the Illini, Vaughn ran for 1,024 yards and nine touchdowns while averaging 4.7 yards per carry.
2. Who catches Shurmur's passes?
Senior quarterback Kyle Shurmur (above, right) returns to pilot the offense for one more season, but he will be forced to find a new top target. With Trent Sherfield, C.J. Duncan and Caleb Scott all completing their eligibility after last season, junior wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb and redshirt junior tight end Jared Pinkney will need to step up. Lipscomb caught 37 passes for 610 yards and eight touchdowns, while Pinkney hauled in 22 receptions for 279 yards and three touchdowns. Local four-star signee Camron Johnson (Brentwood Academy) and Ohio State transfer Alex Stump are candidates to contribute immediately as well.
3. Filling the "impact inside linebacker" vacancy
For the second time in as many seasons, a Vanderbilt linebacker will likely be selected in the early rounds of the NFL draft. Last year, Zach Cunningham was a second-round pick by the Houston Texans, and Oren Burks might very well also be a Day 2 pick this April. Burks was second on the team with 82 tackles, adding a sack, interception and fumble recovery. Incoming freshman Alston Orji was the gem of the early signing period in December as the No. 12 inside linebacker in the nation, and is in a position to see time right away.
4. A new No. 1
A bright spot on defense for the Commodores is cornerback JoeJuan Williams, who shined last season across from senior and top corner Tre Herndon. With Herndon — and two other seniors, Tre Tarpley and Ryan White — graduating from the secondary, Williams will be called upon to be the new No. 1 cornerback. Williams did not record an interception last season but tallied 39 tackles and was second on the team in pass breakups (10) to Herndon’s 11.
5. Brothers Odeyingbo and Co.
Another area of growth for Vanderbilt will be along the defensive front. Senior Dare Odeyingbo will be among the most experienced returning starters on the defense, having started in 11 of 12 games and recording 11 tackles for a loss with 4.5 sacks. His younger brother Dayo, a rising sophomore, did not start in 2017 but played in every game, notching 20 tackles, with 4.5 TFL and 2.5 sacks. Redshirt sophomores Josiah Sa’o, Drew Birchmeier and Cameron Tidd are all players to watch alongside the Odeyingbo brothers on the defensive line.
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and currently a junior at the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and works for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Associate Editor of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.