Vanderbilt offense seeks consistency, balance against Ole Miss


Blake Dover

October 22nd, 2016 – Kyle Shurmur (14) hands the ball off during the Commodores’ 35-17 win against TSU Saturday night at Vanderbilt Stadium. Photo by Blake Dover.

Cutler Klein, Sports Editor

Entering the stretch run of the 2016 season, the Vanderbilt Commodores are still looking for the chance to become bowl eligible. A huge reason why they are in position to do so is because of improvements to the offense from 2015.

Early in the 2016 season, Vanderbilt relied on running back Ralph Webb to carry the ball 20 or more times per game. Now, with Webb on the mend from an ankle injury, the offense can no longer rely on him. Webb hasn’t had more than 13 rushing attempts in a game since mid-October.

Simultaneously, quarterback Kyle Shurmur has grown and developed as a quarterback and been able to throw the ball a lot more. Now, as Vanderbilt takes on Ole Miss on Saturday, it will need to find a balance between run and pass to secure a fifth win.

According to wide receiver C.J. Duncan, the improvement in Shurmur’s abilities has happened independent of Webb’s injury.

“We’ve gained a rhythm, and with rhythm, it opens up the playbook a little more,” he said Tuesday. “We’re developing a trust with the coaching staff with the ball in the air. Once you make plays here and there, the coaching staff gets a little more confident.”

“I don’t think it has anything to do with Ralph. He’s going to be there, he’s going to be ready and make plays as well. Us opening up in the pass game is going to help him and unload the box a little bit.”

Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig concurred and said Shurmur has played better and with more confidence simply because he’s played more games.

“Again, as the quarterback grows in confidence and production, you’re much more likely to put the ball in his hands,” Ludwig said after practice on Wednesday.

That confidence Shurmur is feeling shows up in how deep he tries to throw the ball. His longest completion was fewer than 24 yards in four out of the first five games. Since then, he’s had a long completion of over 29 yards in four out of the last five games. He’s taken more shots downfield and feels confident delivering the ball to his wide receivers.

Ludwig also noted that even though Webb has had to take a back seat, he hasn’t lost any sleep over a running back situation that head coach Derek Mason called a “running back by committee” system.

“We feel very confident in the depth at the running back position,” he said. “I think it’s one of the real strengths of the offense, with Ralph, Khari [Blasingame], Josh Crawford and Dallas Rivers. So, I don’t see that offense changing if we lose one running back.”

One issue that has come up over the past couple of weeks is turnovers. Through the first eight weeks of the season, Shurmur threw just three interceptions and never more than one in a game. He has doubled that total over the past two weeks with one against Auburn and two against Mizzou. The two against Mizzou were likely not his fault, as one of them hit off a receiver’s facemask and the other, according to Mason, was on a missed route by a receiver.

For a team that preaches ball security, even unlucky interceptions have to be somewhat eye-opening. Mason said he isn’t too worried about it because Shurmur has been so good otherwise.

“I think he’s doing what he’s supposed to do,” he said. “I think, all the way around, we have to make sure we all do our jobs. That’s what I tell him: Stay in the pocket, do your job, take care of the football, and that’s what he’s tried to do. I don’t worry much about those turnovers and how those things went, because he was in the midst of doing what he’s supposed to do.”

Ludwig attributed the spike in turnovers to the fact that Shurmur has increased his workload on the field. However, he also did not absolve his quarterback from his responsibilities to limit turnovers.

“When you do throw the ball more, some of those things will happen,” he said. “It’s obviously our number one priority to take care of the football and again, he’s done a good job. A couple of those have been unfortunate bounces or what have you. But again, in the end, it’s the quarterback’s responsibility to protect the ball.”

Even with those interceptions, Duncan remains confident in his quarterback.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Kyle Shurmur,” Duncan said. “He’s our guy, we’re behind No. 14 100 percent and I’ve actually liked how he’s been playing the past few weeks. He’s built confidence in us because we can tell that he’s more confident, so we want to win the routes for him and make the big plays for him and for this offense. I think if he keeps this up, the future is very bright for him.”

Vanderbilt takes on Ole Miss on Saturday at 7 p.m. central at Vanderbilt Stadium. The game will be broadcast on SEC Network.