The Derek Mason era checks several important boxes: Vanderbilt has been to a bowl game twice in the past three seasons; the school's 17 wins over that stretch are the third most in a three-year period since the 1970s; and the Commodores have won three straight against rival Tennessee — something that had not happened since the 1920s. There are, however, a few troubling signs: Mason has yet to record a winning season (he is 24–38 overall), and the defense — his area of expertise — has regressed in each of the past two years after ranking sixth in the SEC in 2016.
But the pros have been enough to outweigh the cons, at least in the eyes of the administration. Mason was awarded a contract extension in February that will keep him in charge for the foreseeable future.
Previewing Vanderbilt's Offense for 2019
Intrigue was added to the battle to replace Kyle Shurmur — the school's career passing leader — when Riley Neal enrolled at Vanderbilt in January as a grad transfer. Neal completed 60 percent of his passes and threw for 7,393 yards while starting 32 games at Ball State. Neal will have to hold off Deuce Wallace, a fourth-year junior who rejoined the team in the spring after missing the 2018 season due to a suspension. Wallace and Neal have a similar skill set. Wallace has more experience in Vanderbilt's system; Neal has the edge in actual game action.
The new starting quarterback will be complemented by arguably the finest collection of skill position talent at Vanderbilt in decades — headlined by running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn, wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb and tight end Jared Pinkney.
Vaughn, a Nashville native who transferred to Vanderbilt after two seasons at Illinois, emerged as one of the most explosive players in college football in the second half of the season. In his final four full games — he went down with an injury in the first quarter against Tennessee — Vaughn rushed for 724 yards (on a 9.2-yard average) and seven touchdowns. Lipscomb caught 87 passes, though he did see his average drop from 16.5 yards as a sophomore to 10.5 last fall with only two catches of 20-plus yards. Pinkney, perhaps the team’s top NFL prospect, was one of two tight ends nationally with at least 50 receptions and a 15.0-yard average.
Lipscomb and Pinkney will no doubt be the primary targets, but Vanderbilt boasts a nice crop of young pass catchers in sophomores C.J. Bolar and Amir Abdur-Rahman and redshirt freshman Cam Johnson. Each has the ability to be an SEC-caliber wideout.
The weapons won't be as effective, though, if the offensive line struggles. "This is a critical position for us," Mason says of a unit that must replace three players who started a combined 34 games in 2018.
Previewing Vanderbilt's Defense for 2019
Vanderbilt improved its scoring defense from 31.3 points per game in 2017 to 26.6 last season — the first under coordinator Jason Tarver — but ranked in the bottom three of the SEC in run defense, total defense and third down stops. Mason believes the struggles on defense the last few years can be attributed to a lack of size and depth on the line. And he believes those issues have been addressed through player development and recruiting — with true freshmen, junior college transfers and grad transfers. "We just didn't have enough size or depth to hold up," Mason says. "We've added some big bodies. We just have more depth."
There are some familiar names back on the defensive line — Dayo Odeyingbo, Drew Birchmeier and Cameron Tidd — but newcomers such as Eddie Zinn-Turner (grad transfer), Brandon Maddox (junior college transfer) and Daevion Davis (true freshman) will be critical to changing the fortunes of the defense.
Jordan Griffin and Josh Smith enjoyed solid senior seasons in 2018, but there hasn’t been a true difference-maker at linebacker at Vanderbilt in the past few years. A couple of young inside backers could emerge as the next standouts at the position — sophomores Dimitri Moore (second on the team with 84 tackles in '18) and Alston Orji (the top recruit in the '18 signing class).
Here's the question for the Vanderbilt secondary: Is it better to have more depth (like the Dores will have in 2019) or a couple of stars (such as they did last fall in corner Joejuan Williams and safety LaDarius Wiley)? Mason favors depth. "We are bigger and longer and have more depth than we"ve ever had," he says. Junior college transfer Dontye Carriere-Williams (formerly of Wisconsin) is a likely starter at one corner spot.
Previewing Vanderbilt's Specialists for 2019
Senior Ryley Guay struggled in his first season as the Commodores' placekicker, making only 13-of-22 field goals, with three misses inside 30 yards. Walk-on Harrison Smith and incoming freshman Jared Wheatley will battle for the punting duties. Justice Shelton-Mosley, a grad transfer from Harvard, should ignite the return game.
External expectations might be low due to the loss of Shurmur and the ongoing struggles of the defense, but there is a quiet confidence in the building — due in large part to the returning firepower on offense — that this will be the best team Mason has fielded. Now it's time to prove it.