The Commodores rank No. 96 in Athlon's Top 130 for 2020
Vanderbilt entered the 2019 season boasting a level of superstardom rarely seen on West End. Wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb, tight end Jared Pinkney and running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn — three of the SEC’s best at their respective positions — all spurned shots at the NFL Draft to return to Nashville for their senior seasons. Yet the end results did not live up to the hype: Vanderbilt finished 1–7 in the SEC and 3–9 overall, its worst record since head coach Derek Mason’s first season in 2014.
With Vanderbilt's Big Three now off to the NFL, Mason and the Commodores turn the page to 2020 with a fresh roster as well as a fresh coaching staff. Mason added six new assistants ahead of spring practice, including veteran coordinators in Todd Fitch (offense) and Ted Roof (defense). The Dores must break in a new quarterback and hope that a veteran defense can author a turnaround. But Mason says his program is out to prove its 3–9 record was an anomaly.
“This group’s got a chip on its shoulder,” he says.
Previewing Vanderbilt's Offense for 2020
The three quarterbacks who played significant minutes for the Commodores in 2019 — Riley Neal, Mo Hasan and Deuce Wallace — are gone. Now all eyes are on the battle between Ken Seals, a touted signee from Texas, and transfer Jeremy Moussa that should last until fall camp. Fitch spent the offseason installing spread principles, which could take advantage of Seals’ dual-threat skill set. The 6'3" Seals threw for 3,060 yards and 33 touchdowns in his final prep season for Weatherford (Texas) High, chipping in nearly 500 rushing yards and seven scores. No matter who the quarterback is, Mason says the Dores expect to go up-tempo more often.
The Dores might utilize a committee approach in the backfield. Redshirt senior Jamauri Wakefield is the most experienced returnee; he missed most of last season due to injury but ran for 353 yards on 78 carries in 2018. Sophomore Keyon Brooks is a viable backup.
With no Lipscomb or Pinkney, redshirt sophomore and former four-star recruit Cam Johnson has the talent to emerge as a No. 1 receiver after a strong finish to 2019. Johnson started the final nine games last fall and had 30 catches for 316 yards. Amir Abdur-Rahman (6'4"), Chris Pierce (6'4") and James Bostic (6'3") add size to the edge. It’s a mixed bag at tight end, but redshirt sophomore Ben Bresnahan is the most experienced option.
Tyler Steen, Grant Miller and Cole Clemons are experienced faces on an offensive line that allowed 28 sacks in 2019.
Previewing Vanderbilt's Defense for 2020
Mason has made it a focus in recruiting to fill out his defensive line with SEC-caliber bodies. In that vein, the Commodores now feel their defensive front can stack up against the rest of the conference.
Senior Dayo Odeyingbo is arguably the leader of the unit after leading the Dores in both tackles for a loss (12) and quarterback hurries (seven) in 2019. The 6'6", 280-pound Texas native has started 21 games in the last two seasons at defensive end. Redshirt senior Drew Birchmeier (12 starts at tackle in ’19) and senior Cameron Tidd bring more experience to the group. Rutger Reitmaier, a Nashville native who began his career at Oregon, and juco signee Raashaan Wilkins (6'3", 300 pounds) will likely play key roles in relief. The Dores also add depth in Power 5 transfers Malik Langham (Florida) and Derek Green (Oklahoma). Mason says Roof’s defense “really fits those guys inside.”
Inside linebacker Dimitri Moore returns as the team’s leading tackler (48 solo stops, 99 total) from a year ago and ranked among the SEC’s top-10 in that category. Redshirt senior Andre Mintze is the vital piece on the outside; he finished with a team-high 4.5 sacks and was second with three quarterback hurries.
Vanderbilt’s secondary was not a disruptive unit last season, ranking at the bottom of the SEC in interceptions and passes defended. A couple of seniors will try to change that at the safety spots in Tae Daley and Frank Coppet. Daley laid claim to half the team’s picks (three). Incoming freshman safety Donovan Kaufman (New Orleans) is a four-star signee according to Rivals and will see the field. At corner, redshirt juniors Allan George (team-high five pass breakups) and Randall Haynie and redshirt sophomore BJ Anderson are the vets of the group.
Related: SEC Football Predictions for 2020
Previewing Vanderbilt's Specialists for 2020
The Commodores are likely to miss departed placekicker Ryley Guay, a two-year starter who converted 9-of-11 field goals as a senior, including a pair of 48-yarders. Next up is redshirt sophomore Javan Rice, a Miami native who boasts just two games and a single field-goal attempt in his Vanderbilt career. The Dores bring back Harrison Smith at punter after he averaged 43.0 yards as a redshirt freshman. Vanderbilt will need to find a suitable replacement for the departed Justice Shelton-Mosley, who returned punts and kicks last fall.
Vanderbilt’s offense failed to find a groove with Lipscomb, Pinkney and Vaughn on campus. Can the Commodores do so this season with a host of untested weapons and a new scheme? For Vanderbilt to make a run at its third bowl game under Mason, a veteran defense might have to carry the load. Otherwise, it could be a long year on West End.
National Ranking: 96
(Top photo by AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)