On a 30-degree morning in March, the Vanderbilt Commodores hit the practice field outdoors on Wednesday for the sixth practice of the spring.
While the Commodores could have moved the practice indoors, head coach Derek Mason wanted his team to experience the elements.
“Yeah, that’s part of this process,” Mason said of the cold. “Every rep that they take out there, it means something, so we can never concede it. We’ve got to play through it. I don’t care what the elements are, we still gotta make sure we take the ball away and get off the field on third down and score touchdowns.”
Perhaps in the past this practice would have been moved indoors, but it’s a new dawn and a new day for Vanderbilt as they look to bounce back from a disappointing 5-7 season in 2017. Part of that new dawn is a new defensive coordinator in Jason Tarver, who came from the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers.
Despite the new face taking over the defense, senior defensive back LaDarius Wiley said nothing much has changed for his defense.
“It’s still Black Death defense, but now we’ve sort of refocused ourselves towards sort of being consistent, like sharks,” Wiley said. “Being the same every day, staking these days, taking them one at a time, and just attacking the ball more, putting the ball down and just getting ready to play, taking each play as an individual play and trying to win the down.”
It’s also a welcomed change for Mason, who has seen it all and done it all entering his fifth season at Vanderbilt.
“In year one, I felt like I was all over the place as a head coach,” he said. “It was because first time through it, you’re trying to see what’s needed and necessary. And then when you take on the role of defensive coordinator, you’re always in the midst of defense. As much as you’re trying to be impartial, you find yourself in the midst of rooting for the defense and not getting things done on the offensive side of the ball.
“For me, it’s been great to see offense, defense, special teams, there’s not anything I miss. If you think I’m lying, ask my coaches, they’ll tell you.”
The 2018 iteration of the Vanderbilt defense will be looking to turn over a new leaf, both in terms of personnel and statistics. The Commodores return just four starters from last season: Dare Odeyingbo, Wiley, Joejuan Williams and Charles Wright. Their spring secondary includes just two players, Williams and Wiley, that started multiple games in 2017. However, there is still some experience on the secondary with players like Donovan Sheffield, Zaire Jones and Tae Daley set to get bigger roles on the defense.
Mason wanted to make it clear that this secondary is anything but inexperienced.
“I think LaDarius has played so much football here, and when you look at Joejuan Williams, he’s played a lot of football,” Mason said. “I don’t think it’s a young secondary. You’ve got Donovan Sheffield who’s played in ball games. We lost some guys, but I truly feel, with Zaire Jones getting experience a year ago, Tae Daley getting the chance to get his feet wet, these guys are now primed to take over those spots. Now what we’ve got to do is work on the consistency, the communication, and Wiley’s the guy to lead this group.”
While the secondary will be looking to assume their roles under a new defensive coordinator, there will have to be a huge emphasis on the front seven. Vanderbilt returns just two multi-game starters up front as well, but also have some players with experience like Dayo Odeyingbo and Josh Smith.
This will also be a front seven with something to prove. Last year, the Commodores ranked 100th out of 129 FBS schools in rushing yards allowed with 2,382. The only SEC teams with worse rush defenses were the bowl-banned Ole Miss Rebels and the hapless Tennessee Volunteers. That weak rush defense exposed the secondary to play-action passes and significantly deflated their statistics last season. According to Wiley, it all starts up front for this defense in 2018.
“We have to be better,” Wiley said. “We’ve shown that we are a top-10 defense in the nation and we’ve shown that. We had a little drop off last year, but the first thing is stopping the run, and there’s us DBs staying top-down and preventing that deep ball. As a group collectively, we all need to focus on stopping the run. Once we get that figured out, we’ll be fine and we’ll be back to where we need to be.”
Ball Catchers Wanted
The Commodores will need all the help they can get at wide receiver this season.
While rising junior Kalija Lipscomb looks to break out as the Commodores’ top wide receiver this season, he won’t be able to carry the offense alone. He’ll need support from other receivers, most notably Ohio State transfer Alex Stump.
After graduating three talented receivers, Mason wants to see what his younger players have to offer to keep the pressure off of Lipscomb, who will face a lot of double-teams in coverage this season.
“It’s a new year,” Mason said. “I think as much as Kalija was proven, the reality is with Trent Sherfield and Caleb Scott gone and C.J. Duncan, he’s going to be the focus of a lot of coverage. So with that being the case, guys around him have to step up and play. We’re going to see how he can get off the double coverage and we’re going to see whether or not the Stumps, the Pierces, the Bostics, the Donovan Tennysons can play football. That’s exactly what their being pushed to do right now. Coach Moorehead understands exactly what’s expected. I know what I need out of that group. Coach Ludwig is stressing it everyday, and all we’re going to do is push the tempo on these guys.”
A big help will be tight end Jared Pinkney, who did not participate in Wednesday’s practice. The Commodores might look to Pinkney as a regular target in the way that the NFL’s Tennessee Titans look to Delanie Walker at tight end. They will also need some help from some freshmen coming in, some of which won’t be in the fold until after the spring.
“We have to,” Mason said. “That’s a huge part of what we do. [Pinkney], [Sam] Dobbs, [Ben] Bresnahan, we take a look at this group man, we’ve got some guys. I can’t wait to see [freshman receiver] Cam [Johnson] come in here and play. I can’t wait to see [freshman tight end] Gavin Schoenwald get in here. We’ve got some guys on tap to come in here and play. I just think when it’s all said and done we’ve got to utilize every weapon. You saw some screens today, you see our backs can catch the ball out of the backfield. We’ve got to make sure everybody counts in this offense and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
Run, Ke’Shawn, Run?
On paper, it looks like a big question mark for this team is replacing Ralph Webb, the most decorated running back in Vanderbilt history.
Paper can’t describe Ke’Shawn Vaughn.
The transfer running back from Illinois and Nashville native is primed and ready to ball out in his hometown. He’s been the primary back in spring practice, and with a few running backs looking to carve out a place in offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig’s offense, Vaughn looks to lead the charge.
After getting the short end of the stick in terms of playing time at Illinois, Vaughn is just looking for his chance to shine.
“That dude comes out here every day with a chip on his shoulder,” Mason said. “He’s making Khari Blasingame, he’s making Jamauri Wakefield, he’s making Josh Crawford stand up and play football. That’s what it’s about. I think all of these guys are coming to practice ready to play, but Ke’Shawn Vaughn is just trying to take it to another level. So here we go, let’s play.”
The Commodores will wrap up spring ball with a week of practices and the spring showcase on Saturday, March 24 from 3-5 PM.