Derek Mason enters a critical spring with new coordinators and plenty of questions on offense
Suffice to say, 2019 did not go as planned for the Vanderbilt Commodores. After making two bowl games in the previous three seasons, Vanderbilt only won three games, which matched the team's previous worst mark under head coach Derek Mason.
The Commodores did not find a way to replace four-year starting quarterback Kyle Shurmur, and the senior trio of running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn, wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb, and tight end Jared Pinkney were not enough to keep the team afloat.
This coming season will be an important one as Mason's seat gets hotter and hotter. Then-athletic director Malcolm Turner announced before the end of last season that Mason would return for another season, but he has since resigned, and the school has yet to name a permanent replacement. If the team does not improve enough, a new AD may choose to install a coach of their own choice.
Fans will have plenty to look forward to before their season opener against Mercer on Sept. 5. Vanderbilt will practice in limited gear on Feb. 25, 27, and 28, then have a week off for spring break. The team will come back on March 10 and prepare for its Black & Gold Spring Game on April 3.
5 Storylines to Watch During Vanderbilt's Spring Practice
1. Getting to know the new coaching staff
Although Mason kept his job, he fired his offensive and defensive coordinators in late December. Offensive coordinator Gerry Gdwoski had only called plays for one year but had been with the program since Mason arrived in 2014 as a tight ends coach and quarterbacks coach. Jason Tarver, meanwhile, had been in Nashville for two seasons since Mason relinquished the DC title. How they mesh with the returning players could go a long way to jumpstarting this program.
Vanderbilt is hoping that Todd Fitch will be the answer at OC after Mason cycled through Karl Dorrell (2014), Andy Ludwig (2015-18), and Gdowski. Fitch brings 14 years of experience as an offensive coordinator, most recently leading Louisiana Tech to finish 35th nationally in scoring at 32.5 points per game in 2019. A Skip Holtz protege, there will be plenty of pressure on him to turn around an offense that has finished no higher than 10th in the SEC in scoring since Mason's arrival.
Defensive coordinator Ted Roof is the more exciting hire after he helped lead Appalachian State to a No. 21 ranking in scoring defense last season. He led Auburn's national championship 2010 squad on defense and has 19 years of experience at a coordinator level. Roof, who was Duke's head coach from 2004-07, led a 3-4 defense last season, so his transition to West End should be fairly smooth.
2. The quarterback situation
Vanderbilt never got anything going on offense last year because of struggles under center, as graduate transfer Riley Neal underwhelmed with a 57.8 percent completion rate and 6.1 yards per attempt and no one else pushed him for more playing time. Deuce Wallace was a disaster (42.5 percent passing, 3.0 ypa, 0 touchdowns, 4 interceptions), and Mo Hasan looked solid but attempted just 11 passes before a concussion ended his season.
Vanderbilt will have a clean slate this spring. Neal is off to try his luck in the professional ranks, Wallace left the program, and Hasan transferred to USC. Even fourth-stringer Allan Walters entered the transfer portal. It's hard to imagine the position being worse in 2020, but the lack of continuity is another concern.
The Commodores have two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster this spring, headlined by early enrollee Ken Seals, who is the projected starter. He was the nation's 17th-ranked pro-style quarterback by Rivals and a semifinalist for Mr. Texas Football in 2019, but it's a big ask to immediately step in as a starting quarterback in the SEC as a true freshman. Junior college transfer Jeremy Moussa could push him for playing time eventually, but he will be limited in spring practice because of a leg injury he suffered before coming to campus.
3. Replacing key playmakers
Vanderbilt hasn't had a senior class of playmakers like they had last season in a very long time. Between Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Kalija Lipscomb, and Jared Pinkney, the trio combined for 2,399 rushing yards and 2,874 receiving yards with 52 touchdowns over the past two seasons. That production won't be easy to replace.
The Commodores may not have a bell-cow back as they've historically had in Vaughn, Ralph Webb, and Zac Stacy, but there remains potential on the roster. Keyon Brooks averaged a robust 4.5 yards per carry as a true freshman and was active in the passing game as well. Jamauri Wakefield could also be a factor if he recovers well from a leg injury that cost him all of last season.
Sophomore Cam Johnson will take over as the leading receiver after hauling in 34 passes for 316 yards last season — both good for second on the team — but there's little depth behind him. No other returning wideout caught even 15 passes last season, so finding anyone to complement Johnson will be a necessity.
4. Offensive line woes
Pass protection was an issue for Vanderbilt last year when the Commodores finished 11th in the SEC (tied 76th nationally) with 28 sacks allowed. And this unit likely will take another step back with the departure of their best player, tackle Devin Cochran, who transferred to Georgia Tech.
The offensive line will get a makeover after assistant Cameron Norcross left to take the same position at UNLV. While Norcross wasn't the most important member of the coaching staff, all the turnover leads to even more uncertainty on offense. Mason is replacing him with former Rutgers offensive line coach Peter Rossomando, who will have a lot on his plate in his first year in the program.
5. Who will step up as a leader?
Nearly the entire offense will be replaced and reworked, but the defense remains almost entirely intact with each of the 10 top tacklers returning. With continuity on one side of the ball, one of those veterans is a good bet to step up and become one of the team's vocal leaders.
Seniors Dayo Odeyingbo, Tae Daley, and Andre Mintze are all good bets to take on an even larger role in that capacity, and leading tackler Dimitri Moore could take a big step forward in his junior season. Expect Mason and the rest of the staff to bring their leaders forward during practice, which should say a lot about the season ahead.