Mason, Commodores not taking MTSU lightly in season opener


Monica Gallagher

Vanderbilt defeats Middle Tennessee State with a final score of 47-24 at Vanderbilt Stadium, September 10, 2016. Photo by Monica Gallagher.

Milind Mishra

The Vanderbilt Commodores take on Middle Tennessee State in the first game of the 2017 season, as Coach Derek Mason looks to notch his first opening day win at Vanderbilt. Kickoff is set 7 PM Central this Saturday on CBS Sports Network.

Coach Mason called the Blue Raiders an “extremely talented opponent” at his press conference on Tuesday. Mason showered praise upon MTSU, particularly quarterback Brent Stockstill and wide receiver Richie James.

When asked, Mason said that Stockstill “could be at Florida and be one of the top quarterbacks in the country,” and that “Richie James could be at Missouri and he’d be one of the top receivers in the country.”

Mason is familiar with new MTSU defensive coordinator Scott Shafer from both of their days at Stanford.

“He’s a tremendous coordinator,” Mason said of Shafer. “He’s going to give our offense some looks that we need to be prepared for.”

The man under center for the Commodores, quarterback Kyle Shurmur, looks to have a fast start and put the Commodores at 1-0 to start the season. Coach Mason foresees big things from Shurmur this year.

“When you couple maturity with the mastery of some nuances he’s had this offseason, I think it’s going to make for a good year for Kyle Shurmur,” he said.

Also present at the press conference was running back Ralph Webb. Webb gave his thoughts on the running back position at Vanderbilt, saying that “I think this is the best group of backs, and the most depth of backs, since I’ve been here.”

Webb ran for a career-high 211 yards against MTSU last year, so there’s a lot of confidence that he’ll be the bell-cow for the team. When asked about what his goals were this year, Webb emphatically said, “Be great. There’s no other option.”

On the flip side, the defense is led by linebacker Oren Burks, who ended the season on a hot streak with 23 tackles in the final 3 games. He said the focus of the defense is on Stockstill’s passing prowess, although his running ability shouldn’t be discounted. Burks gained about 10 pounds in the offseason, saying he ate five meals per day to bulk up.

Mason had high praise for both Burks and fellow linebacker Emmanuel Smith.

“They’re different than Zach, but they have the same attributes,” Mason said. He plans to keep those two on the field as much as possible, given MTSU’s skill at quick passes.

Needless to say, this game is important for the Commodores. Coach Mason hasn’t won a season opener in his 4 years at the helm on West End.

And he knows it.

“It’s a chip. It sits there. It stares me in the face every day,” he said.

The players sense it too. Kyle Shurmur said that “We talk about going 1-0 every week…Going 1-0 the first week is just that.”