With the departure of James Franklin, the Vanderbilt Commodores hired former Stanford University defensive coordinator Derek Mason to try to continue the successful run of three-straight bowl appearances in the tough SEC. Coming from Stanford, a university with similar high academic expectations that has found success on the football field, Mason could be the right guy for the job — that’s if he can find a quarterback and settle the uncertainty in the defensive backfield.
The first thing Mason must address offensively is the quarterback position. Of the three candidates, sophomore Patton Robinette, freshman Johnny McCrary and redshirt junior transfer Stephen Rivers, only Robinette has any game experience (642 passing yards). Rivers, a transfer from LSU and the younger brother of NFL quarterback Phillip Rivers, has the size (6-foot-7, 223 pounds) and pedigree, but McCrary has a strong arm and the intangibles.
Whoever wins the job will have the luxury of two experienced running backs to rely on in juniors Jerron Seymour and Brian Kimbrow. While both are undersized, 5-foot-6 and 5-foot-8, respectively, they’ve showed enough toughness and vision as ball carriers to combine for 1,123 yards and 17 total touchdowns. Using the Stanford blueprint for success, Mason will rely on the running game for balance, so Commodores fans should expect to see an improvement from the 139.0 YPG average that had them ranked 14th in the SEC and 92nd nationally.
Another reason for the reliance on the rush offense is due to a lack of an established receiving threat on the outside. The leading returning receiver, sophomore Jordan Cunningham, had only 15 catches for 123 yards. The other projected starters, sophomore Latevius Rayford, freshman C.J. Duncan and junior Kris Kentera, all will have to step up in order to help out the new signal caller.
With all the changes at other positions, the offensive line is perhaps the most stable on the offense. Even with the departure of All-SEC tackle Wesley Johnson, the Commodores return four starters led by senior center Joe Townsend.
Defensively, Mason will have to replace seven starters from 2013 while dealing with the growing pains of switching from a 4-3 defensive scheme to a 3-4. One position that he will not have to worry about is the linebacker core that returns three starters: senior Kyle Woestmann and juniors Darreon Herring and Jake Sealand. Herring is the leading returning tackler (84) and will be expected to take on a larger role as a leader. The new starter, junior Caleb Azubike, is a converted defensive end who has pass rush skills, but still must prove he can cover in space.
While the defensive line will led by senior nose tackle Vince Taylor, he will have plenty of young talent up front with him. One of those guys will be Army All-American true freshman Nifae Lealao — the highest rated recruit in the history of the program.
Unlike up front, the defensive backfield returns zero starters, but will feature four guys who have been in the program for some time and are looking to show that they are capable. The safety position will be manned by two juniors — Jahmel McIntosh and Andrew Williamson — both of whom appeared in 12 and 13 games as reserves. One newcomer to keep an eye on is true freshman safety Emmanuel Smith of Murfreesboro. Despite the coaching change, Smith stuck with the program and could earn a role in the rotation if he learns the position quickly.
In past seasons, it was the non-conference schedule that gave Vanderbilt the bulk of their wins and in 2014, that will be the case again. They have four home games against Temple, Massachusetts, Charleston Southern and Old Dominion, and even with the transition of the program, those should all be easy victories.
Within the SEC, they play Ole Miss, South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee within the friendly confines of Vanderbilt Stadium. This is a tough home schedule as they probably will only be favored against the in-state rival Volunteers — and even that game isn’t a gimme.
They have to travel to Kentucky, Georgia, Missouri and Mississippi State. After playing six-straight home games, the Commodores should have addressed many of the lingering position questions and will get their only in-conference road victory. The other three teams are, for a lack of a better term, just better and the 6-6 season will serve as a gauge for coach Mason to determine which returning players have bought into the changes and which positions will need to be addressed during 2015 recruiting and beyond.