The good news in Nashville: Derek Mason's Vanderbilt Commodores won six games and played in a bowl game for the second time in three seasons.
The bad news: Mason and the Commodores lost both bowl games and have yet to post a winning season during their head coach’s tenure.
Vanderbilt brass apparently saw enough on the positive side, however, that not only did they retain Mason but reportedly extended his contract late last week. That’s a big leap of faith in Mason, who has gone 24-38 in five years at the helm and whose recruiting classes (according to 247Sports) have been last in the SEC in every year of his tenure.
Getting started with spring practices means the Commodores can look ahead to next season with the assurance that their head coach remains intact, and that confidence might give this team a bit of an edge as they vie for their first winning season since 2013.
5 Storylines to Watch During Vanderbilt's Spring Practice
1. Succeeding Shurmur
Kyle Shurmur was far from electric, but his consistency was one of the key reasons that the Commodores moved the ball with any sort of effectiveness in 2018. While he was never one to throw for 500 yards and six touchdowns, his poise was rarely shaken and he gave his team a fighting chance week in and week out.
With his departure, redshirt junior Mo Hasan steps in after transferring in 2017 from Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College (where he played after starting his career at Syracuse in 2016). Hasan appeared in just five games in 2018, completing only four of his six passes for 38 yards. He will need to show in the spring that he has picked up enough from Shurmur to be a capable leader to this offense.
2. Playmakers abound
While Shurmur was the engine that made the offense go, he certainly had help. Senior Ke’Shawn Vaughn and junior Jamauri Wakefield return to anchor a strong ground game that averaged 167.5 rushing yards per game a season ago, while seniors Kalija Lipscomb and Jared Pinkney — who combined for 130 receiving yards per game a season ago — project to be the leading pass catchers.
3. Youth up front
Moving to the defensive side of the ball, the Commodores say goodbye to quite a bit of their tackling production from last season. Only one of the top five leading tacklers — sophomore linebacker Dimitri Moore — returns after Jordan Griffin, LaDarius Wiley, JoeJuan Williams, and Josh Smith are all gone from the 2018 team.
The Commodores will likely rely on a combination of Dayo Odeyingbo, Drew Birchmeier, Rutger Reitmaier, Cameron Tidd, and Stone Edwards to fill the void up front, with Birchmeier’s 31 tackles the most from this group.
4. Mixed bag in the back end
With Williams gone, Frank Coppet will look to take the next step part of the last line of defense. The pair combined for seven of Vanderbilt’s 13 interceptions. That leaves the sophomore duo of Randall Haynie and Allan George — who each had one interception last season — to help pick up the slack in the secondary.
5. Who’s the difference-maker?
With youth the story for this Commodores team, especially with the inexperience at quarterback, there is not a clearly defined leader heading into spring ball. While one or more of the Vaughn-Wakefield-Lipscomb-Pinkney tandem could — and, frankly, should — emerge as the catalyst for the offense, both sides of the ball will need to come together and play as a cohesive unit in 2019, and that preparation starts now in spring practice.
With Mason given a vote of confidence via the extension, the team should be able to play much more relaxed, which should project nicely for a team looking for its first winning season since 2013.
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and currently a senior 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 Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.