Saturday afternoon at Vanderbilt stadium gave fans the first taste of what this football team might look like in the fall. For all intents and purposes, it was a glorified practice in a rain-soaked environment with little contact. But don’t tell Kalija Lipscomb.
On a day where several receivers tried to separate themselves from the pack and work for a starting role, Lipscomb was in midseason form. The soon-to-be junior receiver out of New Orleans hauled in four passes for 133 yards and two touchdowns, showing no hesitation in taking on the number one spot in the receiving corps. He showed speed, precision route-running, and an uncanny ability to go up and reel in the deep ball. Vanderbilt’s corners flat out had no answer for him.
Lipscomb is looking to build off a strong sophomore season, one in which he caught for 610 yards and a team-high eight touchdowns. With the losses of Trent Sherfield, CJ Duncan, and Caleb Scott, Lipscomb has become the unquestionable top option, and his rapport with quarterback Kyle Shurmur looks strong as ever five months out from the 2018 season. He recognizes that with that new role, he has had to grow up fast.
“Last season, you can kind of see it when we did interviews, just being around everybody in the organization knows, I was kind of the little brother of the receiving corps,” said Lipscomb. “Trent [Sherfield], C.J. [Duncan] used to come out and just hit me on top of the head, put me in a chokehold and stuff like that. I was a young pup, and over the course of a month or two, I became like an old guy. It took me a little time to adjust to it, but I think I’m kind of falling into it now.”
That hasn’t gone unnoticed by his quarterback.
“I think he’s embraced the role,” Shurmur said of his top receiver. “At the end of the day, him being one of the older, more experienced guys, he’s got to help out the other receivers to help him as well. It’s a team sport.”
Lipscomb was already a focus of many teams’ game plans last season, and he figures to be the main point of emphasis this season too. As a guy who might be this team’s best receiver since Jordan Matthews, he will likely draw double teams on a weekly basis, further stressing the need for production out of the rest of the receiving corps.
“If I’m the only one that’s going, then we’re not going to get very far because I’m going to get doubled,” said Lipscomb. “It won’t just be me out there.”
It’s anybody’s guess who will line up opposite Lipscomb as the number two wideout come September 1st against Middle Tennessee, but whoever it is will see a serious uptick in opportunities. Apart from its star, Vanderbilt’s entire receiving group has combined for 15 career catches for 207 yards, virtually a third of Lipscomb’s numbers just last season.
The favorite to snag that second spot is Camron Johnson, a 4-star receiver from Brentwood who will arrive on campus as a freshman this summer. Johnson will be walking into an open competition between a lot of guys who got to showcase their skills on Saturday.
Alex Stump caught three passes, including a touchdown over the middle from backup quarterback Deuce Wallace to give the offense its first score of the day. Chris Pierce and James Bostic got their share of snaps as well, both having been lauded by Mason in the past for their size and ability to go up and make tough catches. Trey Ellis, Jackson Winrow, Donaven Tennyson, and CJ Boler all saw sufficient action as well. Derek Mason liked what he saw from that group.
“I think we’ve got more weapons, offensively, than we’ve had since I’ve been here,” said Mason. “Now it’s just about the opportunity for these guys to continue to open it up. What you’ll see out of this group is something that’s pretty dynamic. Chris Pierce and James Bostic have a chance to be something special.”
Add these receivers to the weapons the offense already has in Jared Pinkney at tight end and Ke’Shawn Vaughn out of the backfield, and Mason might be onto something. With so much uncertainty at the position, though, only time will tell.