The Vanderbilt Hustler

Five storylines before Vanderbilt football kicks off the season

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Five storylines before Vanderbilt football kicks off the season

Vanderbilt takes on Kansas State on Saturday, September 16, 2017. Photo by Claire Barnett//The Vanderbilt Hustler.

Vanderbilt takes on Kansas State on Saturday, September 16, 2017. Photo by Claire Barnett//The Vanderbilt Hustler.

Claire Barnett

Vanderbilt takes on Kansas State on Saturday, September 16, 2017. Photo by Claire Barnett//The Vanderbilt Hustler.

Claire Barnett

Claire Barnett

Vanderbilt takes on Kansas State on Saturday, September 16, 2017. Photo by Claire Barnett//The Vanderbilt Hustler.

Max Schneider, Associate Sports Editor

The end of the 2017 college football season for the Vanderbilt Commodores can best be described as bittersweet.

On one hand, the Commodores defeated in-state rival Tennessee for the second consecutive time, giving them bragging rights for at least another calendar year.  On the other hand, just five wins didn’t earn coach Derek Mason’s squad a shot at a bowl game, marking the third time in the last four seasons that the Commodores failed to earn a bowl berth.

Now in Mason’s fifth year with the program, Vanderbilt is just days away from its opening kickoff against Middle Tennessee, and the pressure is high.  Another losing season will undoubtedly ring the alarm bells in Nashville.

There’s reason for optimism, however.  Vanderbilt returns a lot of talent, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, and that should be enough to keep the Commodores competitive.  With that in mind, here are five storylines to look for when Vanderbilt takes the field Saturday evening.

Can Kyle Shurmur take the step from good to great?

Photo by Bruce Brookshire

For the first time in a while, Vanderbilt has a quarterback it can really lean on to start the year.  Kyle Shurmur was a bright spot for an otherwise underwhelming team, and he’ll look to build on that success heading into his senior season.  Following a 2016 season in which Shurmur threw just nine touchdowns, the 6’4 signal-caller bounced back to the tune of 26 touchdowns with just ten interceptions.  He improved in virtually every facet of his game, and it was just as clear on the field as it was on the stat sheet.

Shurmur looked comfortable in the pocket, went through his progressions nicely, and showed a level of accuracy that had looked shaky just a year prior.  He’s the main reason why Vanderbilt had a quietly very solid offensive unit, scoring just under 25 points per game in college football’s premier defensive conference.

With some losses at wide receiver and a lot of question marks on the defensive side of the ball, Shurmur is going to need to take that next step in order to keep Vanderbilt in games, and that’s something well within his abilities.  He’s a coach’s son, has prototypical size, plays behind a strong offensive line and has 30 starts under his belt.  What more could you ask for from the quarterback position?

Shurmur has all the tools, and his growth over the past couple years has been tremendous.  If he can put up numbers like he did against South Carolina (27/49, 333 yards, 4 TDs), he’ll grab the attention of defenses across the conference.

Ke’Shawn Vaughn is a Ralph Webb clone

Commodore Spring Football game on Saturday, March 24, 2018. (Photo by Claire Barnett)

It’s a strange dynamic to lose the SEC’s sixth all-time leading rusher and still feel positive about the running game, but that’s exactly how Vanderbilt feels heading into this season.  Ralph Webb will be missed, of course, but Ke’Shawn Vaughn will step into his role and fill that void perfectly.  Vaughn and Webb are extremely similar backs.  They’re predominantly speed backs with quick-cut ability and can be used as weapons in the passing game, so practicing with Vaughn in the backfield must feel right at home for the rest of this offense.

Vaughn isn’t necessarily a huge step down either.  The Nashville native ran for over 1,000 yards at Illinois before transferring to his hometown team, and he has a year of experience with the offense and fresh legs to rely on.

Vanderbilt’s ground game will likely be a point of emphasis this year, and Vaughn spearheads the unit.  Khari Blasingame comes in with multiple years of experience and just two seasons removed from a ten-touchdown campaign.  He’ll likely be featured on short yardage and goal-line situations, areas where he can really do damage.  Finally, Jamauri Wakefield has shown flashes of brilliance in practice and spring games, and he’ll see his fair share of touches as well.  Expect a strong backfield this season from Vanderbilt, and while the lead back might not be wearing number seven, his play might look just a little familiar.

Finding another option opposite Kalija Lipscomb at receiver

The Vanderbilt Commodores scrimmage on Saturday, March 24, 2018. (Photo by Brent Szklaruk)

Kalija Lipscomb is Vanderbilt’s newest version of Jordan Matthews at Wide Receiver.  The numbers might not be there yet, but the athleticism, hands, and knack for going up and getting the football in traffic are.  With CJ Duncan, Caleb Scott and Trent Sherfield graduating, Lipscomb is the only proven wideout on the roster, which means as poised as he is for a breakout season, he’s also destined to face double teams on a weekly basis.

While Lipscomb has 64 receptions under his belt, the rest of the receiving corps has just 14 combined, and in order to really open up the passing game, somebody is going to have to step up and grab that WR2 spot.  Ohio State transfer Alex Stump looked sharp in the spring game, as did Chris Pierce and James Bostic, both of whom were lauded by Mason as big possession receivers.

The guy who has been turning the most heads in practice, though, is Cam Johnson.  Johnson, a freshman from Brentwood, Tennessee, comes in with high expectations that he appears to be backing up on the practice field.  Whoever it is that starts opposite Lipscomb, he’ll be counted on to be a reliable target and command some of the attention.

Bounce back year for the defense?

The Commodores play Georgia on Saturday, October 7, 2017. Photo by Claire Barnett

Well, there’s nowhere to go but up.

Vanderbilt’s defense was the worst scoring defense in the history of SEC play last season, giving up 346 points in just nine conference games.  Part of that was due to the departure of Zach Cunningham, perhaps the best defensive player this program has ever seen.  A lot of it, however, was due to a failure to do the most fundamental thing defenders are taught to do: tackle.

Vanderbilt struggled tackling in the open field on all three levels of the defense, and it showed in routine drubbings at the hands of otherwise average offenses like Ole Miss and Missouri.  This was compounded by Vanderbilt’s struggle to force turnovers.  The Commodores ranked last in the conference in turnovers with just nine in twelve games.

Vanderbilt loses six starters on the defensive side of the ball, and while roster turnover is usually a negative, the Commodores might benefit from some new faces taking the field.  There’s a lot of young talent for which Mason and defensive coordinator Jason Tarver alike have high expectations, such as Zaire Jones and Dayo Odeyingbo.  Throw those guys in with proven studs like Joejuan Williams, LaDarius Wiley, and Charles Wright, and a bounce back year might just be in the cards.

Mason on the hot seat?

The Vanderbilt football team plays at Middle Tennessee State University on Saturday, September 2, 2017. Photo by Claire Barnett

Derek Mason is a players’ coach and as likeable a coach as one can find in college football.  For those reasons alone, a lot of people want to see him as the head football coach for the foreseeable future.  If Vanderbilt struggles to hold their own in the SEC again this season, and fails to make a bowl game, it’ll be hard to lean on likability at the expense of results.

To be clear, nobody is expecting Derek Mason to turn this team into an SEC contender like James Franklin did, but in a job as ephemeral as coaching, progress is a must.  Vanderbilt looked to be making progress after a berth in the Independence Bowl in 2016, but the team took a step back after that, losing seven of nine games to end the 2017 campaign and miss a bowl.  If the Commodores don’t make a bowl game again this year, expect a real conversation about Mason’s job security, and if they struggle to start the season, expect that conversation to happen sooner rather than later.

For now, Mason has both this team, and fans excited to kickoff this football season, and it looks like his job is safe.  Hopefully for Vanderbilt, things stay that way.

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About the Contributors
Claire Barnett, Multimedia Director

Claire Barnett ('19) is the Multimedia Director of the Vanderbilt Hustler. As the director of all photo and video content, she is rarely seen without a...

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