Four months ago, Vanderbilt was still figuring out its offensive identity. With just two games left, the Commodores needed to ignite their offense if they were going to get to a six-win season.
83 points and a bowl appearance later, the chemistry started to reveal itself, and Vanderbilt had a lot to look forward to heading into the offseason. Saturday’s spring game was the first time the offense played in a game situation since its last action at December’s Independence Bowl, and that level of familiarity was on full display.
Quarterback Kyle Shurmur looked sharp, completing seven of 13 passes for 90 yards and a touchdown in his time running the offense. Just a year removed from competing for the starting quarterback job, Shurmur has settled into the role and looks comfortable with the bevy of weapons he has at his disposal.
“We all as a group have really taken command of this offense,” the junior quarterback said. “It starts to slow down, and we’ve started to play with a lot of confidence because a lot of this stuff is second nature.”
Saturday’s scrimmage was by no means an all-out grind, but the offense shined, echoing the fact that with the reps it has gotten as a group over the past year, “second nature” sounds like an appropriate assessment. And why wouldn’t it? The Commodores return nearly every skill position player on the roster, including 92 percent of last year’s carries and 96 percent of last year’s receptions, an incredibly high retention rate for a bowl team.
Shurmur’s increased rapport with his wide receivers opens up the playbook for offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig. Last year’s offense showed signs of miscommunication throughout the season. In a late game drive to try to complete a comeback against the Auburn Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Shurmur threw a pass over the middle to Trent Sherfield that the Tigers picked off to seal the game. The quarterback and veteran wide receiver clearly weren’t on the same page, as Sherfield hadn’t even begun to come back to the ball when it landed in the arms of Auburn cornerback Joshua Holsey.
Since then, Shurmur and his receivers — Sherfield in particular — have worked to be on the same page, to the tune of 184 yards for Sherfield against Tennessee in Vanderbilt’s final home game. That connection was a mainstay in the short time Vandy’s offense was on the field Saturday, with Sherfield snagging three of Shurmur’s throws on great timing routes. Shurmur also hit senior wide receiver C.J. Duncan on another timing route for his lone touchdown of the day.
The growth of the Vanderbilt passing game is essential, but it exists to supplement what has grown into one of the best running games in the SEC. Ralph Webb sat out Saturday’s scrimmage because head coach Derek Mason “knows what he can do,” but the rest of the running back group was on display, and Khari Blasingame broke a big run for a touchdown. Blasingame had a breakout 2016 season sharing the backfield with Webb, and the linebacker turned running back looks exceedingly comfortable with his role in the offense.
“A year has made a big difference,” said Blasingame on the transition. “Earlier I was just trying to get used to the play book, getting the basics down. Now I’m just working on getting the intricacies of the playbook.”
Blasingame and Webb will undoubtedly spearhead Vanderbilt’s rushing attack, but it was a different running back that turned heads on Saturday.
Jamauri Wakefield sat out last season, with Mason not wanting to burn his freshman redshirt, but he excelled Saturday, hitting the hole hard and picking up two touchdowns. Mason couldn’t say enough the show Wakefield put on.
“People got a chance to see what this young man is going to be,” said Mason of his young running back. “Let me tell you, you talk about somebody putting it on tape, he did just that every day. If anybody goes down, you better make sure you get back early because you may have your job taken.”
Vanderbilt looks like a well-oiled machine with its rotating backs and receivers that have spent years with the program. Looking around the field, however, it’s hard to ignore the losses of Will Holden and Barrett Gouger on the offensive line. On a team with mostly familiar faces, new guys are going to have to step in to keep that team chemistry afloat.
“At first it’s kind of tough to fit into an offense that played together all last year,” said Sean Auwae-McMoore, a redshirt freshman center who stepped into Gouger’s starting role and has been taking the first-team reps. “The O-line is definitely getting closer as the days go by throughout camp though. We definitely have been clicking as an offense. We have a lot to work on but we’re in a really good spot.”
Auwae-McMoore was the No. 5 center recruit in the nation last year according to 247Sports, so the talent is definitely there. Gouger has made sure to pass on his wisdom to his replacement.
“Barrett has helped me out, showing me different ways to study the plays, using the VCR with 3-D virtual world,” said Auwae-McMoore. “He says whenever I need anything to just let him know.”
With the flashes the offense has shown, both at the end of last season and into spring camp, this doesn’t look like the Vanderbilt narrative of the past few years. This offensive unit is experienced, balanced and, most importantly, on the same page.
On a team notorious for its defense, the Commodores possess a variety of veteran weapons on the offensive side of the ball. If Saturday’s scrimmage is any indication, they’ll be able to compete next season in the SEC.