An exceedingly confident Derek Mason said, “The future is bright, but the future is now”. From coach to players, Vanderbilt has been the swaggiest team to visit Hoover to date. Mason led the Commodores to a 6-6 regular season record and earned a trip to the Independence Bowl. He received a raise, contract extension, and a larger recruiting budget. VU finished the regular season by averaging 41.5 points-per-game in wins over Ole Miss and Tennessee. For comparison purposes, it averaged 23 points-per-game over the course of a thirteen game season. Mason will field an upper-shelf defense. The question that will decide Vandy’s fate is will we see the 41 or 23 points-per-game offense in 2017?
It opens close to home at Middle Tennessee State before a string of three home games against Alabama A&M, Kansas State, and Alabama. Kentucky won this matchup 20-13 at Kroger Field in 2016. The Cats built a 17-3 lead at the half prior to holding off a VU late-push. I’d be more bullish on the Commodores if not for a porous performance against NC State in its bowl game. However, juniors and seniors litter the depth chart as Mason will sport his first veteran heavy squad. Vandy could be a dangerous team if it starts 17 as it finished the 16 regular season.
Head Coach: Derek Mason, 13-24 at Vanderbilt.
2016 Results: 6-7, lost 41-17 to NC State in Independence Bowl.
Opener: At Middle Tennessee State
Running back Ralph Webb (1283-yards, 13 TD’s) decided to return to Nashville and not enter his name into the NFL Draft. Webb is Vanderbilt’s all-time leading rusher and set a team career record with thirteen games with more than 100 rushing yards. In fact, Webb set Vanderbilt single-season rushing records as a freshman, sophomore, and junior. He’ll run behind an offensive line that brings back three starters: guards Bruno Reagan and Ean Pfeifer along with tackle Justin Skule. QB Kyle Shurmur’s 2016 (2409-yards, 10 TD’s) started inconsistently but ended on a hot streak. Experience should play a factor for the junior as he’s played a great deal of football for the Derek Mason. With nine starters returning, the Vanderbilt offense should become more consistent in 2017.
WR’s Trent Sherfield (34 catches, 1 TD) and CJ Duncan (44 receptions) are also back in the mix. Much like Shurmur; Sherfield and Duncan upgraded production to close out last season. It won’t be flashy, but the Vanderbilt offense may be enough to get the Dores back to the postseason.
Returning Statistical Leaders
Returning Starters: 9
Passing Kyle Shurmer 204/375, 2409-yards, 9 TD’s, 10 INT’s
Rushing Ralph Webb 250 carries, 1283-yards, 13 TD’s
Receiving CJ Duncan 44 receptions, 494-yards
2016 Offensive Results
-Scoring 23 ppg (SEC 13th)
-Rushing 164.5 ypg (SEC 10th)
-Passing191.2 ypg (SEC 11th)
-Total 355.7 ypg (SEC 12th)
Linebacker Zach Cunningham was one of the better football players in all of college football in 2016. He’s now in the NFL which leaves a tremendous void for Derek Mason. Oren Burks (59-tackles, 3.5 sacks, 3 TFL) will assume leadership duties. Safeties Ryan White (75-tackles, 3.5 TFL) and LaDarius Wiley join cornerback Tre Herndon and Nickel Taurean Ferguson in a talented and experienced secondary. Jonathan Wynn and Nifae Lealao return along the front from a defense that finished 6th in total defense in 2016.
Returning Statistical Leaders
-Returning Starters: 7
-Tackles: LaDarius Wiley-76
-QB Sacks: Oren Burks-3.5
-Interceptions: Tre Herndon-2
2016 Defensive Results
-Scoring 24 ppg (SEC 5th)
-Rushing 163.5 ypg (SEC 6th)
-Passing 244.6 ypg (SEC 11th)
-Total 408.2 ypg (SEC 6th)
IMPACT ON KENTUCKY
I’m still disturbed from UK’s last trip to Nashville. Kentucky has not traditionally played well in that stadium. Vanderbilt plays WKU the week prior to the Cats. This is a winnable game for the UK but geography and momentum must be taken into consideration when analyzing the November 11th contest against a veteran laden team. Vanderbilt will not be an easy out and one of several factors that led to me proclaiming that the Cat’s 2017 schedule is more difficult than 2016. Count me as a believer in Mason’s podium proclamation; his team will be improved from a year ago.
Derek Mason Excerpts
“Vanderbilt football is on the rise. As I look at our program and where we're at and what we've done, I thought in 2016, we took several steps forward to be a better program. You looked at how we finished the season, 4-2, got us to a Bowl game for the first time in my tenure. And that was an exciting time for us.”
“As I look at where we are too, we're starting to close the talent gap. When you talk about recruiting and what it looks like for us, Vanderbilt's definitely on the rise. We look to yield the top 25 recruiting class better than any of the classes we've built since I've been here, and that's growth. That's part of where we are. That's part of where we need to be. So we're moving the envelope. We're pushing the needle.”
“As I move forward, I want to say we have depth. For the first time in my tenure, I look at depth on this football team, and I truly believe we have a chance to do something special.”
“This team has grinded as hard as any team that has been around since I have been here. Part of it is because they understand what's on the other side. They finally got a chance to see what can happen if they play the right way, if we do the right things, if we don't beat ourselves. They are not planning on going back. That is what I will say to you. Once you taste it, the idea is to make sure you go forward, not backwards. That's where we are.”