Vanderbilt’s special teams will be a clean slate this season in many regards.
Punter Sam Loy left the school, kicker Tommy Openshaw graduated and special teams coordinator Jeff Genyk was replaced by Shawn Mennenga.
Luckily for the Commodores, they still have some veterans in the fold and don’t have to send a freshman punter into the fire. Ivy League veteran and Columbia grad transfer Parker Thome is slated to handle punting duties. Thome was the latest Columbia punter to transfer out of the Ivy League to land in a Power Five conference role, and Mason is excited about what he can bring to the table.
“For consecutive years running, Columbia did a great job at that position,” head coach Derek Mason said. “They had two back-to-back all-Conference guys. One went to Auburn the year before, the other one came to Vanderbilt. Both of those guys were able to flip the field, they had specialty arsenals in terms of being able to corner kick, great placement, rugby, he can do it all. The ability to be flexible and be accurate and give you that level of consistency that you need along with operation time, that’s critical because as you’re breaking in guys, you want to know and understand that he can get it off in time.”
Vanderbilt will be facing more high-octane SEC offenses this season, so having quality punting will be vital to helping DC Jason Tarver’s defense slow down the country’s finest offenses.
“Our snap-to-kick time has gone up tremendously,” Mason said. “Last year, I thought our punter did a good job of making some things happen. I truly believe this punter is the right guy at the right time for us and is going to allow us to do some things in our punt game and hopefully head off some of these specialty returners in this conference because everybody has a dynamic returner in this conference.”
Mason also said that there would be a competition among his kickers to take Openshaw’s spot. Vanderbilt finished last in the SEC in field goal completion percentage, field goals attempted and field goals made. Junior Ryley Guay and freshman Javan Rice will be competing for the starting job.
Guay stood out at the spring showcase in March, kicking monster field goals in warmups despite adverse conditions.
“In this specialist group, we have a lot to prove,” Mennenga said of his entire group. “We’re very inexperienced there, losing three guys that had the majority of the kicks, punts and snaps last year. But we have a good group of guys who went through the spring with us and have come in this summer. I’m excited about where they’re at and what they’re going to do. Excited to work with them, they’re extremely coachable and work extremely hard.”
On the other side of special teams, the Commodores will be looking for improvements in the punt return game. Vanderbilt was near the top of the SEC in kickoff return yards with an average of 22 yards per return, but sunk to the bottom four in punt return yards with just 7.6 yards per return.
Mason wants a lot more out of his returners this year. Wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb took the majority of returns last season, but his role is not set in stone.
“I want 10 yards per return,” Mason said. “Whoever can give me 10 yards per return as we get through this, because that’s a first down. All you’re trying to do with a punt is flip the field with a first down. Whoever can get me 10 yards in camp, that’s the guy that’s going to be out there. If that’s Kalija Lipscomb, that’s great. Right now, Kalija is in competition. He knows that, they all know it, and that’s what this football team is all about.”
Overall, Mason is very excited about what Mennenga has been able to do with his new-and-improved special teams corps.
“Shawn has really talked about making sure our guys truly know,” Mason said. “Since all of these guys want to get to the next level, they all want to play at the next level, that means that they’re availability to special teams and the importance of it had to be stressed, and I thought right away he built a culture on special teams, so I’m excited.”