One week from today, the Vanderbilt Commodores will begin their spring football practice season, but they will do so without a usual event on the schedule: the Black and Gold Spring Game.
That’s because head coach Derek Mason has moved away from the concept, electing for a “spring showcase” on Saturday, March 25 instead, which will feature drills, seven-on-seven play and full scrimmages.
Mason attributed that change to the shortened offseason as a result of Vanderbilt’s berth in the 2016 Camping World Independence Bowl.
“We’re still going to do the work that gets done situationally,” he told the media on Friday. “But, I think the most important part of what we need to do is get the fundamental pieces of what normally happens in a practice, the individual part, all those things. I think, right now, the biggest thing I’m running out of with this group is time.”
Because of this shift away from the spring game concept, ESPN and the SEC Network have decided not to televise Vanderbilt’s showcase this year. In a press release last week, ESPN announced that 13 of the 14 SEC schools would have television coverage of their spring games, with Vanderbilt as the lone exception. This led to rampant speculation throughout the week.
Mason clarified that it wasn’t his decision to nix the television coverage, he hadn’t even spoken to the SEC and that he never even knew that the network wasn’t coming.
On top of that, he opened the door for the TV cameras to come in and cover the Showcase.
“I don’t believe that we won’t get TV exposure,” he said. “Whether you’re talking about a spring game or a spring showcase, I see it all the same. I’m definitely inviting the SEC to come out on Saturday, March 25, to come in and see our ball club.”
“We’re going to have scrimmage situations, so they’re going to see some of that, but you’re also going to see some one-on-one, some seven-on-seven and some other things. I don’t know how many SEC teams get access to a full practice. Much like everybody else, this is an opportunity for people to get a chance to see how Vanderbilt works and the inner workings.”
The fourth-year head coach was almost defiant in his decision to hold a showcase instead of the spring game that every other SEC school does. TV coverage was not a thought to him in planning his spring schedule.
“I’ve never been about making decisions based on what other people do,” he said. “When I look at my program, and what we’ve done over the past three years, we’ve gotten incrementally better, and that’s about me making decisions as a leader. This is my ball club, this is my team, and it’s definitely about us doing what’s right for the program. Right now, as I look at our roster and what we have and where we need to go, that decision for me is what’s best.”
This new spring showcase format is not that novel. Last season, Mason did not run a traditional spring game format, opting for a similar combination of drills and scrimmages. The 2016 Black and Gold Spring Game was shown live on SEC Network on Friday, March 25, 2016.
Despite the SEC’s decision not to broadcast the spring showcase, Mason said he values the television coverage of spring ball, live or taped. However, he encouraged the conference to bring the cameras in for a live broadcast.
“Let’s do it live,” he said. “If the SEC wants to do it live, let’s do it live.”
Here are some other storylines going into spring ball:
The Commodores will enter the 2017 season without some key veteran players at a number of positions.
Offensive linemen Will Holden and Barrett Gouger both graduated in 2016, as did defensive lineman Adam Butler. Linebacker Zach Cunningham declared for the NFL Draft, leaving Mason with another hole in the front seven to fill.
Mason said he’s looking at all of these positions in the spring.
“We’ve got some young offensive linemen, and have to replace some guys,” he said. “Defensively, you lose Adam Butler. We’ve got a couple of young guys there who have to help us. At linebacker, without Zach Cunningham moving forward, we have to find who that next guy is.”
The injury bug
Following a grueling season, Vanderbilt might be shorthanded going into the spring. A few players on the team are battling injuries and will need extra rest before getting back on the field.
Even though Mason wants an intense and hard-working spring season, safety is his top priority.
“We’ve had some injuries, and some of those were catalogued,” he said. “For the most part, guys are nursing. I have to be smart enough to know and understand how I need to manage it. It’s about safety. If you take two, three, five, seven or eight guys out of it, all you do is put guys in harms way. It’s my job to figure out exactly what we need by making sure we can minimize the stress and maximize performance.”
No locked starters
Even with the successes of the 2016 season, Mason is entering the spring with a clean slate and open opportunities for everyone on the team to vie for playing time.
There are no guaranteed roles going into the spring; everyone is competing.
“Every position is up for rent,” he said. “I don’t care if you started a year ago. 2016 has nothing to do with 2017.”
Vanderbilt opens up spring practice on February 27, concluding with the Spring Showcase on Saturday, March 25 at Vanderbilt Stadium.