Nic Cage apparently can’t control his rage when things are not in their proper order. So, Vanderbilt probably did the rest of the world a public service by taking a step back to its usual place in the college football world last season, because an angry Cage is a menace to society. However, Derek Mason and the rest of his staff probably want to take a step forward so that they can protect their jobs, even if it does mean releasing the rage of Cage. Also, on a very loosely related side note, if Nic Cage had hired a Vandy grad to file his contracts then they would have been filed properly.
Sophomore running backs Ralph Webb and Dallas Rivers give the Commodores a threat, at least, out of the backfield. Webb rushed for over 900 yards and four touchdowns last season, and Rivers pitched in 218 yards and two touchdowns. Those touchdown numbers need to go up, and the yards per carry numbers aren’t fantastic either, but if they did that as freshmen then it’s still a good sign for the future.
Left tackle Andrew Jelks was lost for the 2015 season with an injury before it even started, which is a massive blow to an already thin line. Without Jelks, Vandy has three linemen on the roster with starting experience. The good news is that those guys have 72 combined starts between them. Seniors Jake Bernstein and Spencer Pulley lead the way in experience at right guard and center, respectively, and junior right tackle Will Holden is right behind them with eleven career starts.
C.J. Duncan is another player for the ‘Dores whose season ended before it even began. That’s sad news too, because the Montgomery native seemed primed for a breakout year after catching 28 passes for 441 yards last season. This will increase the burden on other pass catchers like Latevius Rayford and tight end Steven Scheu. Scheu is one of the top tight ends in the conference as led the Commodores in receiving yards last season with 525.
I would say that quarterback is a huge question mark for this team heading into the season, except that no matter who it is, they will be better than the quarterback play Vanderbilt had last season. Seriously, you, whoever you are reading this, could not do much worse than the compilation of quarterbacks Derek Mason trotted onto the field last season. Johnny McCrary and Wade Freebeck were two of the four guys who took snaps last season, and both of them are back. McCrary led the team in pass attempts, passing yards, passing touchdowns and…interceptions last season. Those two are facing competition from freshmen Shawn Stankavage and Kyle Shurmur for the starting job. Stankavage, it should be noted, is a redshirt freshman, as opposed to Shurmer, who is a true freshman.
The six leading tacklers from last year’s defense return, and four of them play linebacker. Nigel Bowden and Zack Cunningham both recorded over fifty tackles last season in eleven games. Stephen Weatherly finished just behind them with 42.5 tackles, but was the primary disruptor in the backfield with 12.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks. Both of those marks were good for best on the team.
Andrew Williamson and Torren McGaster are the only non-linebackers to be on that list of leading returning tacklers. McGaster, a cornerback, finished second behind Bowden on the team with 56 tackles last season, and also managed to haul in two interceptions and break up five passes. Williamson and other returning starters in the secondary, Jahmel McIntosh and Taurean Ferguson, all topped the 25 tackle mark last season and had a combined three interceptions and nine pass break-ups.
Nose tackle Vince Taylor is gone up front, but both defensive ends Caleb Azubike and Adam Butler return. Those two combined to record 13.5 tackles for loss last season. I have yet to find an official depth chart for the Commodores, so I am merely speculating here, but my guess for Taylor’s replacement would be sophomore Nifae Lealao.
Many expect Vanderbilt to improve this year, and I think that they could fall into that strange position of getting better while the record gets worse. Outside of Austin Peay, the schedule is tougher than last year in the non-conference, and I still think Vandy is far enough from the rest of the pack in the SEC that a conference win is a longshot. Western Kentucky is their only FBS home non-conference game, and anyone who knows anything about the C-USA knows that they are a preseason favorite to win the conference. Middle Tennessee and Houston also prevent road games that I’m not sure the Commodores will, or should, be favored to win. All in all, I think Vandy picks up another win somewhere in these three games, but I also don’t think it will come easily.