On Tuesday morning, Derek Mason released his first official depth chart as the head coach of the Vanderbilt Commodores. It featured several familiar faces in starting roles, but also some hungry newcomers who will take the field for the first game of the Mason era in place of some veteran talent. If the listing holds true, players who had been assumptive starters headed into the summer will now have to fight to earn back their spots on the field, starting with Thursday's opener against Temple.
A depth chart can't tell us everything. It's a basic breakdown of the starters and backups, but it's not the official code through which Mason will run this team. Players who are listed as first teamers will be usurped by the players behind them. Athletes who start throughout the season may play fewer snaps than their backups. The chart can be used as a legitimate guide for Commodore fans, or it might be used as motivation to fuel some extra fire at practice.
With that understanding that everything is dynamic and nothing is set in stone, let's take a look at some of the bigger surprises on Mason's first depth chart for the 2014 season. These surprises were just one man's reaction, so your mileage may vary. All issues can be taken up in the comments below.
1. Stephen Weatherly starts at outside linebacker over Caleb Azubike. Weatherly came on strong at the end of last season as a legitimate pass rusher at defensive end, notching 4.5 tackles for loss in the team's final three games. Even so, he was expected to play a rotational role in 2014 thanks to the presence of Azubike and Kyle Woestmann in front of him. His presence at starter means that Azubike - who was pegged for breakout seasons the past two years after a strong freshman showing - may be behind the curve when it comes to realizing his All-SEC potential this fall.
Team officials referenced Azubike's absence from practice due to a death in the family as the reason why he slid back on the depth chart. Will he be prepared, both physically and mentally, for this week's game? Will he be able to jump back in to full speed play and be a beast in the second level despite playing at a new position? His eye-opening first year with the Commodores suggests that he'll be able to adjust on the fly.
However, let's not discount Weatherly's ability to play the game as a reason why he's starting on Thursday. He's quickly developing into a reliable and effective presence along the edges, and he'll make life difficult for plenty of quarterbacks this fall. Vanderbilt should be able to force several rushed passes and sacks from their OLBs.
2. Nigel Bowden starts at inside linebacker over Jake Sealand. Sealand had his share of growing pains as a redshirt freshman last fall, but he found a way to adjust to the speed of the game and improved to become a solid backup linebacker by the end of 2013. That experience appeared to give him an edge for a starting spot this summer, but he lost ground to redshirt freshman Bowden. Bowden, a four-star recruit, has prototypical size and strength at ILB. At a stocky 245 pounds he can push back blockers and stop runners at the point of attack, which gave him the early edge on his upperclassman counterpart.
As for Sealand, he'll have to outplay true freshman Hawkins Mann in order to see significant playing time on Thursday - the two are listed as equals behind Bowden on the team's first depth chart.
3. Trey Wilkins starts at WR2 over a host of players. Wilkins, a senior, has certainly earned this designation due to his efforts on and off the field. The question now is whether or not he can keep it. He has the #2 spot amongst wideouts, but it's clear that there are no locks in Karl Dorrell's system this fall. Wilkins is listed as an "-or-" starter next to Latevius Rayford, and he could also see his spot taken by C.J. Duncan, who was placed right next to Jordan Cunningham on the depth chart. His two career receptions make him one of the team's most experienced receivers (sadly, this is not sarcasm), but he'll have to produce immediately to be a starter for the Commodores in 2014.
4. Ralph Webb starts at tailback (over Brian Kimbrow and an injured Jerron Seymour). Webb was a revelation at the spring game, and murmurs that he could earn the first carry of the 2014 season began to bubble up soon after this summer's practices began. As a result, it's not entirely surprising that the redshirt freshman was tagged for a starting role against Temple. He'll fill in for Seymour (knee injury) and relegated the shifty Kimbrow to chance-of-pace duties. While Kimbrow may be the more athletic and explosive back, Webb's all around game and ability to pick up blitzing defenders earned him an opening night start in his first season of active duty for the 'Dores.
This competition could heat up in the coming weeks. Mason suggested that Seymour "could go today" if needed at Tuesday's press conference, but the team will sit him this week to push him towards 100% for next week's game against Ole Miss.
5. Hayden Lekacz earns a chance to split time as the team's kicker. Lekacz, a kicker out of Illinois, earned the "-or-" distinction as starting placekicker after a solid summer. He'll push Tommy Openshaw for the chance to replace the immortal Carey Spear in the lineup. That's pretty impressive for a player who isn't even listed on the team's official roster online.