It's really truly hard to believe the football season is over already, but for the boys in black and gold there is a lot to work on and look forward to in the future. Coach Mason has often talked about a process, and I'll be 100% honest with you right now, after we lost to Western Kentucky I wasn't so sure if Vanderbilt could beat a single SEC team let alone two SEC teams. Combine that with a big win against Middle Tennessee State and a thumping of Austin Peay and you have the ground work of what went right for the Commodores this season. But what all went wrong? Well...let's take a look.
You're a NFL prospect, an All-SEC Tight End, and completely invisible
If I had to rip any one aspect of the season, it would have been Steven Scheu and his lack of visibility. I don't know if it is on Ludwig or on him but he simply did not look like the same tight end we saw last season. He had some big drops, effort blocks that just weren't made, and overall he was just invisible some games. I think I would still draft Steven Scheu, but I don't think I'd draft him before day 3...at least not anymore. I can't place all the blame on him because honestly the quarterback situation was a mess, but let's be honest here, if it was said he would only have one touchdown catch on the season chances are you would have been laughed out of the building. I wish you luck Scheu, I really do...but I don't think this year was as good as last year for you.
Injuries galore; who's coming back?
Andrew Jelks has an argument to go pro. But where would he land? Not entirely sure...but the argument can be made. Also, what is the status of Nigel Bowden? Can he ever play again? His injury legitimately scares me as a football coach, but he as a player is entirely too valuable to the Vanderbilt program. He's a leader who defines what being a Commodore is all about. Imagine what we would see if we had Zach Cunningham, Bowden, and Stephen Weatherly on the field all at the same time. No, that isn't scary at all if you're an opposing SEC offense.
Who is next man up?
Trent Sherfield had some moments of greatness, I expect him to get better. But do you guys remember the first spring Mason was here and Ralph Webb tore it up in the spring game? We need that again. We need someone in that locker room to blow us away when spring practice starts. And believe it or not, it starts in the weight room. With all the young bucks we had playing this season a year in the S&C program will do them a bit of good, and hopefully the spring game is moved back a bit so we can see the true growth of the program. Hard to evaluate in only 3 months, especially when half those prospects are just getting in from national signing day. Here's hoping we have some early kids coming in.
Wade Freebeck, Johnny McCrary, where do they go or do?
I don't think Freebeck is entirely angry about it, but it is obvious he could have taken a redshirt year with him only throwing 6 passes on the season. Alas he will be a junior next season and have very little to show for it. Does he want to stay on as the back up? Does he want to be redshirted? Will a redshirt even help him at this point? I think the answer is you redshirt him in case Kyle Shurmur doesn't make the progress you hope for. However, you have to figure out what to do with Johnny McCrary. I don't think he can be the backup quarterback and unless you teach him another position he's kind of just...there. You never hope for a transfer but if there was a transfer that super 16 turns into a super 17 and helps us out a little bit with recruiting numbers. Curious to see how it all plays out.
Smith Brothers, where are thou?
17 tackles for two of the highest rated prospects Vanderbilt has recruited the last couple of seasons. Again, redshirt management comes into question a little bit. I think Emmanuel Smith is due for a big breakout year but Josh is stuck behind a lot of talented linebackers. It's gonna take some hard work for these two to come up big next season, looking forward to the spring.
So what went right exactly?
Ralph Webb is the most underrated player in the SEC
You have a banged up offensive line, you're seeing 9 man boxes, and you still have a 1,000 yard season. Call me biased but I feel Ralph Webb is in the conversation for top three running backs in the SEC right now. Much like the man they call Fournette, there was no passing game to bail out the young Webb from taking pounding after pounding game after game. You could make the argument that Ralph Webb will be Vanderbilt's all time leading rusher by the time he leaves campus, especially if he stays another two seasons. But as I have said in the past he's at his best when he's around 200 touches on the year. Keep him as fresh as possible and it will pay off, I promise.
Stephen Weatherly and Zach Cunningham are equally as underrated
If Nigel Bowden comes back next season you could argue that Vanderbilt will have the best linebacking core in the SEC. Assuming Josh Smith plays up to his full potential, you're looking at a class of recruits last year that quite frankly scares me. Caleb Peart is a kid I've raved about, and honestly? He's gotten a chance to get bigger. Jordan Griffin could make the move to safety if he isn't bigger, because the kid is lightning quick...imagine Oren Burks all over again. But with all these linebackers it comes into question, how do you rotate them? I don't think it matters, just be excited we could be even better defensively next season.
Herndon and McGaster are cover guys with a violent side
Have you seen some of the hits these guys have laid out this year? It's enough to get you excited. I saw one big hit on Kamara that was a touchdown toss, but honestly it was a thing of beauty to see a corner come up and tag someone. I think it goes without saying you have to have good corners in the Southeastern Conference, especially with the receivers Tennessee has recruited as of late. While Pharoh Cooper and Laquan Treadwell will be gone you can almost guarantee these programs will find another big time target to replace the athletes leaving. This is going to help us greatly, and may even allow us to develop some of our other corners at a slower rate knowing that we have not one but two guys who can be shutdown out on the field.
A lot of young guys got a lot of playing time, and that's going to help them in the long run. I still firmly believe the only difference between most 4-5 stars and most 3 stars is one takes more time to develop and one is considered ready to play now. Justin Skule, Bruno Reagan, and Brady Granier all got some reps as either true or redshirt freshmen. Kyle Shurmur took reps as a true freshman. Josh Crawford took reps as a true freshman, as did several others. This is all great for these young kids to see what SEC football is like, and it is even better for some of them to have some early success in SEC football. However...
Still plenty of redshirted players too
Caleb Peart and Jaire George are all guys who took a redshirt this year. If they all put on weight and fill out their frames we could see just how good they can be. Peart will be the pass rushing OLB, George will compete with Rivers as the power back, and Jared Pinkney, if he winds up earning a medical redshirt after being injured in his only game of 2015, could be this years version of De'Andre Woods going from wide receiver to tight end. These are just guys off the top of my head who I know redshirted, I'm sure we have more than I named.
What's the next step?
Shurmur has to make reads faster
Seems fairly obvious, but Kyle Shurmur has to make his reads quicker. He can be an All-SEC Quarterback if he takes the right steps in this direction. But it's going to take a lot of film work and learning whichever playbook he is using next year. The spring will be an okay indication of what he has going on, however the work he does with his receivers after spring practice and the work he does in the film room will ultimately determine how much better he will be next season.
Offensive linemen get bigger, faster, stronger
The fact we've got 315+ pound offensive linemen all over the place is great. What's scary is, they can be bigger and stronger than what they were this. It's hard to compete with some of these defensive lineman if you don't have to size. One great equalizer to talent is work ethic, and if these kids are anything like the man whose been recruiting them they're going to get in the weight room and kill it this offseason. I expect to see two deep lines at every position next fall, which will be great for facing the talented defensive linemen we will see and continue to see year after year after year.
Receivers are needed
If a wideout doesn't step up soon we might go 3 tight ends all day long. Caleb Scott has promise going into his junior year, as does Sherfield...but Rayford and others really need to pick their game up if they don't want to get buried. I would mark this down as the biggest recruiting need. We've got tight ends - several of them, actually. Now get us some wide receivers who can make plays down the field.
Offense is needed
Look I don't care if we line it up and run the ball 50 times if it works, but it better work if we're doing it. That means a running back not named Webb will have to step up eventually. With two more true freshmen joining George, Crawford, and Rivers, someone among that group will have to pick it up. Sims is a nice change of pace back, but I don't expect him to carry the ball more than 50-70 times next season.
Look, we're graduating 9 this season and 19 next season. That's only 28 players out of nearly 100 who are upper classman. You have to admire the approach Mason took when he sat down and said he wanted to build a program in his image, because honestly it has worked. Go look from year one to year two, his play calling, his recruiting, his management of the program, everything has gotten better (except some of the uniform combos he picks against certain opponents). We're looking at a program that is closer than you think and I promise you if you're loyal to Mason he's going to be loyal to you too.
It hurts going from the little bit of success Vanderbilt had to the "old Vanderbilt" in the blink of an eye. But it needed to be done, with the rape scandal it had to be done. Someone had to come in and say we're going to do things the right way and that's the bottom line because
Stone Cold Said So Derek Mason said so. If you read the tweets from the players they're all excited to get to a bowl next year, they're excited to compete in the SEC East, and I'm excited to see where we go from here. Another Top 50 recruiting class and a big winning season will lead to more wins down the line.