After a promising close to the 2016 season, Vanderbilt took a step back in 2017. The Commodores were outgained by 124.5 yards per game in league action and won only one SEC game. Senior QB Kyle Shurmur returns to lead the way after throwing for 26 TDs last year, but standout running back Ralph Webb and three of the top receivers have departed. Transfers Ke'Shawn Vaughn (running back) and Alex Stump (receiver) will be counted on for immediate help. Derek Mason is handing the defensive play-calling duties to former Stanford assistant Jason Tarver after the defense gave up 6.9 yards per play in SEC games last fall. This unit returns only four starters, struggled to stop the run and generated just nine takeaways. Vanderbilt will have a tough time staying out of the SEC East cellar without significant improvement on defense.
Previewing Vanderbilt Football's Offense for 2018
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Vanderbilt's passing attack was greatly improved in 2017 thanks in large part to the emergence of Kyle Shurmur in his second full season as the starter. The Commodores ranked fourth in the league with 243.6 passing yards per game -- their highest total since Jay Cutler's senior season in 2005 -- and mercifully ended a four-year streak in which they threw more interceptions than TD passes.
Vanderbilt's struggles in the running game were one of the more surprising developments last fall. Despite the return of tailback Ralph Webb -- the school's all-time leading rusher after three seasons -- and three starters on the offensive line, Vanderbilt ranked last in the SEC with 107.2 yards per game (down from 164.2 in 2016). Ke'Shawn Vaughn, a Nashville native who transferred to Vanderbilt after two years at Illinois, is the frontrunner to replace Webb as the No. 1 back. Vaughn rushed for 723 yards as a true freshman in 2015 before falling out of favor with the new staff in Champaign.
C.J. Duncan and Trent Sherfield became only the second pair of wide receivers in school history to each catch at least 50 passes in a season. Both have graduated, leaving junior Kalija Lipscomb as the clear-cut No. 1 target. Tight end Jared Pinkney has been considered one of the most talented players since he arrived on campus, but he's caught only 44 passes in two seasons.
All five starters and all but one reserve return on an offensive line that did a solid job in pass protection but struggled in the run game.
Previewing Vanderbilt Football's Defense for 2018
Three games into the 2017 season, Vanderbilt led the nation in both total defense (198.3 ypg) and scoring defense (4.3 ppg) en route to a 3-0 start. The team's defensive fortunes, however, took a dramatic turn for the worse as SEC play commenced. They allowed 59 points in a shutout loss to Alabama in Week 4 and proceeded to set an SEC record by allowing 346 points (43.3 per game) in the eight-game schedule.
Derek Mason responded to the struggles by hiring Jason Tarver, a former colleague at Stanford, as the team's defensive coordinator. Tarver, who spent the last six years in the NFL, inherits a defense that returns four starters and has significant issues on every level.
There's cautious optimism that things will be better on the defensive line. Despite the loss of Nifae Lealao, the unit's only 300-pounder, Vanderbilt should have more size along the front. The linebacking corps will be led by Charles Wright, who emerged as the Dores' best pass rusher (9.0 sacks) in his first season as a starter. Cornerback Joejuan Williams, one of the top recruits in school history, is the best player on the defense.
Previewing Vanderbilt Football's Specialists for 2018
The special teams will have an almost entirely new look in 2018: New coach (Shawn Mennenga), new kicker (freshman Javan Rice or walk-on Ryley Guay), and new punter (grad transfer Parker Thome).
The overall win total dropped by only one game from 2016 to 2017, but a deeper dive into the numbers reveals that the Commodores took a significant step back in Mason's fourth season. To get his team back into the bowl picture -- and to stay off the hot seat -- Mason will need to solve the Commodores' defensive issues. Even if Shurmur and the offense continue to progress -- a realistic proposition with an improved offensive line and the addition of Vaughn in the backfield -- Vanderbilt will struggle to stay out of the SEC East cellar if the defense is allowing 40-plus points in league games.