November was a magical month for the Vanderbilt offense. Through four games, the Commodores averaged 29 points per game, fueled by 290 yards passing and 170 yards rushing per game. These performances included a 38-pointer in a drubbing of Ole Miss and an even more impressive 45 points in a win over Tennessee the following week.
While the rushing game simply maintained its success through the final four games, the passing attack improved astronomically, both on the stat sheet and to the eye. What made the evolution most impressive was how sophomore quarterback Kyle Shurmur and the junior-heavy receiving corps grew stronger together, each feeding off the success of the other. Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig sees this positive feedback loop of confidence as the key to the newfound success.
“Shurmur’s playing with a lot more confidence, and the offense has fed off of his confidence,” Ludwig said, adding that the receivers are “feeding off of the quarterback’s confidence. When they’re making plays, it gives the quarterback more confidence. It’s been fun to watch.”
Junior wide receiver Trent Sherfield has appreciated the confidence that Ludwig has put in the passing game recently.
“He’s dialing it up, and when Shurmur’s on, he’s on,” Sherfield told VandyRadio. “I think that we’ve all seen from Kyle that he’s grown up before our eyes, and I think he’s getting more comfortable in the pocket and being able to just deliver the ball, being able to take hits and those things like that. Just trusting his receivers and his receivers trusting him.”
Sherfield also explained how the dangerous running game has allowed Ludwig to open up the playbook and let loose the deep ball — a newfound weapon of late.
“I think when we play teams and they’ve got 10 guys in the box and they don’t want to respect us on the outside, then we just make them pay for it,” Sherfield said. “It goes back again to Coach Ludwig, and us being in the film room watching the defense, knowing what they’re gonna do, knowing and attacking their plans. We’ve got guys on the perimeter who can make those plays. C.J. Duncan, he’s been playing lights out, as well as Caleb Scott too.”
Sherfield’s belief in his fellow junior receivers is well-founded; while Sherfield leads the team in receiving yards with 448, Duncan has hauled in a team-leading 38 receptions and Scott has emerged as the Commodore’s deep threat, averaging a staggering 20.9 yards per catch. Scott’s ability to get behind secondaries is probably the most stark change in this newly high-powered offense:
“Early on in the season we didn’t really let it rip like that often,” Scott said. “I think Kyle got more comfortable, I think the coaching staff got more comfortable with letting us throw those deep balls more. It’s kind of just developing trust over the season through practice, making the plays in practice and turning it over to the game.”
While the playcalling certainly deserves its due, nobody’s shy about the importance of the quality and commitment of their young quarterback. Sherfield continued sharing what he’s seen in Shurmur from his unique vantage point.
“Shurmur, man, he’s incredible; he works just as hard as anybody I know and it’s great to see what’s happened for him,” he said. “Coach Ludwig has put us in position to be successful and those type of things. But every day after practice, the wide receivers get with Shurmur and we go over the routes we missed in practice. We’re building that chemistry.”
A man of few words, Shurmur is just glad he’s getting the green light to let it fly, as more chances means more success.
“You just get more opportunities, that’s basically what it is,” Shurmur said. “Just more attempts, simple as that.”
Much like the receivers have enjoyed his success, Shurmur has gotten a front row seat to watch the receivers’ progression.
“It’s great to see them play so well,” he said. “They’ve worked hard all season. I think we all got better throughout the year, and they really came up huge these last four games.”
While the improvement in play from the quarterback and receivers has been the most noticeable change recently, it wouldn’t be possible without the offensive line stepping up the way it has. Will Holden, the Second Team All-SEC Offensive Lineman, takes pride in how the boys up front have dug deep to keep Shurmur upright.
“It just comes down to want-to,” Holden said. “The offensive line takes great pride in our work, and whenever you fail you want to do the best you can to overcome that failure … it’s just taking great pride in your work, and I think the whole offensive line group has done that.”
Vanderbilt hopes to continue the progress made in the passing game through its meeting with North Carolina State in the Camping World Independence Bowl the day after Christmas, using the extra month of practice and a final test against a solid ACC opponent as a springboard into the 2017 season — the senior season for most of the Vanderbilt receiving corps.
Confidence is running high for the Commodores, and they’ll try to translate it into another high-flying performance from the Vanderbilt passing game.