Big wins in its last two games sent Vanderbilt and head coach Derek Mason to a bowl game for the first time in three seasons. Now the challenge is to sustain that success. Mason has 15 starters returning, including his record-setting running back, but the offense needs to continue to improve if the Commodores want to win more than three conference games. There should be enough talent and experience on this roster to get Vanderbilt back to the postseason, but it would be a surprise if the Commodores emerged as a legitimate threat in the SEC East.
Previewing Vanderbilt Football’s Offense for 2017
Vanderbilt’s offense emerged from a prolonged slump — going on three full seasons — with an unlikely scoring barrage in the final two regular-season games of the 2016 season. The Commodores scored a total of 83 points in wins over Ole Miss and Tennessee, the most by the program in consecutive games since scoring 95 in victories over Auburn and LSU in 1948.
The offense took a step back in the bowl game — due in part to a foot injury sustained by quarterback Kyle Shurmur — but there were enough positive signs late in the season to suggest that the Commodores could take a step forward in 2017.
Shurmur struggled through the first two-thirds of the season but surged down the stretch, flourishing in wins over Ole Miss (273 yards, two TDs) and Tennessee (416 yards, two TDs).
Shurmur’s increased production was aided by the improved play of the wide receivers. Caleb Scott was the best of the bunch down the stretch, averaging 22.7 yards on his 10 receptions in the final three regular-season games. Two other seniors, C.J. Duncan and Trent Sherfield, and promising sophomore Kalija Lipscomb will form a solid four-man rotation.
Depth at running back was a huge concern at this time last year. It’s now arguably the deepest position on the roster. Ralph Webb returns for his senior season after rushing for a school-record 1,283 yards. Khari Blasingame was a pleasant surprise after transitioning from linebacker. The staff raves about redshirt freshman Jamauri Wakefield.
Two starters — NFL-bound left tackle Will Holden and center Barrett Gouger — must be replaced up front, but there is enough talent and experience remaining for the Commodores to field another solid offensive line.
Previewing Vanderbilt Football’s Defense for 2017
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The Commodores took a small step back defensively in 2016 but still finished in the top half of the SEC in both yards (sixth) and points (tied for fifth) allowed per game. They excelled in two key areas: red zone defense and big-play prevention. Now, they must forge ahead without Zach Cunningham, arguably the best defensive player in school history.
Senior Oren Burks will be tasked with replacing Cunningham at inside linebacker. Burks played most of last season at Star, a hybrid outside backer/end position.
The secondary figures to be the strength of the defense. Depending on the formation, the Commodores will at times have five seniors on the field at the same time. “That excites me,” coach Derek Mason says.
Senior nose tackle Nifae Lealao anchors what Mason is calling the deepest defensive line in his four seasons at Vanderbilt. That may true, but it’s still a group that loses four-year starter Adam Butler — the 2016 team leader in sacks — and key reserve Torey Agee.
Previewing Vanderbilt Football’s Specialists for 2017
The special teams were improved across the board, which no doubt helped the Commodores reach bowl eligibility. Placekicker Tommy Openshaw connected on 15-of-19 field goals, with three of the four misses from 45 yards or longer.
Perhaps no program changed its trajectory in the final two weeks of the 2016 regular season more than Vanderbilt. Double-digit wins over Ole Miss and Tennessee sent the Commodores to a bowl game for the first time under Mason and showed tangible signs that the program was headed in the right direction. Sustaining success has always been difficult for Vanderbilt, but Mason has a veteran team — 20 of the projected 22 starters are in at least their third year in the program — that should remain competitive. If the offense continues to progress, Vanderbilt is likely to make another trip to the postseason.