Were the Vanderbilt Commodores better in 2015 than they were in 2014? Most statistical measures say yes. Derek Mason won one more game than he did in his first year and two more SEC games than that disastrous 3-9 season. In 2014, their average margin of defeat was 16 points. This fall, it dropped to 5.8. In that first season, they ranked 104th in scoring defense. This season, they improved all the way to 21st in the nation.
Of course, it's difficult to call a four-win season a major step forward. Those advances weren't so apparent across the board. Vandy's passing offense fell from 105th to 112th in the country. They scored two fewer points per game than they did the year before. Despite a few moments of promise, this team is still a long way away from finding a stable solution to their quarterback problems. If you break this season down to its core components, you get several different answers for the question about whether or not this team was better in 2015.
In that spirit, let's look at this team by position. The question is simple; did this unit improve under Derek Mason this fall?
Even though Kyle Shurmur displayed the poise and accuracy that suggests he could be this team's quarterback of the future, it would be tough to say that Vanderbilt's passing game improved in 2015 with a straight face. The Commodores had three games in which they passed for fewer than 50 yards. All three were losses. A competent passing game would have likely led this team to wins over Western Kentucky, South Carolina, and Florida. Just two of those what-if wins would have sent this team to a bowl game and afforded the 'Dores an extra month of practices.
Shurmur looked like the team's biggest passing threat since Austyn Carta-Samuels in stretches, but was equally as likely to disappear for full quarters in Andy Ludwig's offense. His composure in the pocket - and his willingness to deliver an accurate pass despite getting crunched by oncoming pass rushers - is the trait that may define his Vanderbilt career. However, he's still got a long ways to go before he can create the offensive counterbalance to Ralph Webb's running.
Johnny McCrary is a maddening case. You can see why he was an Army All-American; all the physical tools are there. He's got a big arm, big frame, and he can be an elusive runner under the right coordinator. However, he's three years in to his college career and he still can't identify his windows of opportunity downfield. He forces passes into bad spots and that led to red zone turnovers and lost games in 2015. He can still turn the corner, but he's quickly running out of time to prove that he's an SEC quarterback.
Wade Freebeck threw six passes all season and looks lost in the QB mix. He'll have to re-establish himself against the two guys listed above as well as a healthy Shawn Stankavage and incoming freshman Deuce Wallace if he wants to start another game in black and gold.
Running Backs: Yes.
Ralph Webb avoided the sophomore slump. After a slow start, he proved himself as one of the SEC's top tailbacks by gauging conference opponents for big runs and 100-yard rushing days. He ran for 1,152 yards this season - good for fifth in the SEC and second all-time in Vanderbilt history. What's even more impressive is that he had some of his strongest performances against teams that were hell bent on stopping him. Webb had to cut through stacked defensive lines that paid little attention to Vandy's meager passing game and instead keyed in on stopping the 'Dores running game.
Behind him, Darrius Sims, Dallas Rivers, and Josh Crawford rotated through the change-of-pace role. Sims was a shifty runner built for jet sweeps, but Ludwig failed to utilize him with consistent success after a 104-yard rushing performance against South Carolina. Crawford had a few nice carries as a true freshman, but an ill-timed fumble landed him in Mason's doghouse. Rivers was the most consistent of the three - a bruising runner who could also break free if his blockers created space. He doesn't have the kind of tackle-breaking ability that Webb has, but he got stronger as the season wore on and is capable of being this team's #2 option in the backfield.
Wide Receivers: Sort of.
Trent Sherfield and Caleb Scott showed off the potential to be a dynamite duo at wideout, but a lack of consistency - from both Vandy's receivers and their quarterbacks - were the structural flaws of this condemned building Mason called a passing game. Sherfield set a school record with 240 receiving yards, but those came against an Austin Peay team that would have struggled to make the Division III playoff field this fall. Scott seemed to have a connection with freshman passer Shurmur, but the duo combined for only eight receptions (and an impressive 165 yards) in Shurmur's starts.
That's not enough to carry this offense into the future, but it could be the foundation for something bigger. Scott will be a junior next season, and he's got the hands and route-running ability to be a go-to threat for whomever is slinging passes next season. Sherfield is more of a home run threat, and he'll have an extra year of adjusting to the position under his belt next year. Behind them, the team will have 2014's leading receiver C.J. Duncan back in the fold, along with Latevius Rayford, Jared Pinkney, Rashad Canty, and Donaven Tennyson available to provide downfield threats for the 'Dores.
So while 2015 wasn't a success for this group, it's easy to see how the work they put in could make for a big 2016. That's a wash in my book.
Tight Ends: No.
Steven Scheu went from All-SEC to afterthought in a senior season plagued by poor quarterback play and then drops during the rare moments when he was actually targeted. He was supposed to be the safety blanket for this team's young passers, but instead fell victim to the football anathema that struck many of this team's other receivers. In his place, DeAndre Woods blossomed into a dynamic receiving threat up the seams...for exactly three games before getting injured. The Commodores will count on Woods - along with Kyle Anderton, Nathan Marcus, and Sam Dobbs to move the position in the right direction next season.
Offensive Line: No change.
Vanderbilt went through another season of unsteady offensive line play thanks to injuries that started before this team even played their first snap. Andrew Jelks was supposed to anchor this line at left tackle, but didn't see the field after suffering an ACL injury during preseason practices. Seniors Jake Bernstein and Spencer Pulley performed admirably to keep this line from falling apart, and their hard work helped improve this team's blocking towards the end of the season. However, it's difficult to ignore the pressure that often put Shurmur and McCrary on their backs this fall.
It's a toss-up as to whether this unit can significantly improve in 2016. They'll get Jelks back and the late-season performances of young guns like Bruno Reagan and Bailey Granier should lead to stronger sophomore campaigns. However, they'll also be without Bernstein and Pulley, and their two most veteran blockers - Barrett Gouger and Blake Fromang - had their own share of struggles this fall. They'll need to come together as a unit if they're going to give Vandy's developing passers the room they need to grow next year.
Defensive Line: Yes.
Vanderbilt's defensive success started with their push up front, where a six-man rotation was able to bully even the biggest blockers. Caleb Azubike and Adam Butler were the veteran leaders of this group, but they were bolstered by the unmovable presence of players like Jay Woods, Torey Agee, Jonathan Wynn, and Nifae Lealao inside. Those six contributed to 22 tackles for loss in the Commodores' 12 games in 2015. Only Azubike has used up his NCAA eligibility, so expect this unit to be similarly strong, if not better, next season.
Linebackers: Very yes.
Zach Cunningham established himself as an All-SEC athlete and a probable NFL Draft pick thanks to his strong instincts and ridiculous range when it comes to dragging down ballcarriers. He finished third in the conference in solo tackles and second in forced fumbles as he emerged as the leader of Vanderbilt's stout defense. Senior Darreon Herring stepped back into a featured role with Nigel Bowden out and was steady in both phases of the game as middle linebacker.
The 'Dores weren't as dynamic as expected at outside linebacker. Stephen Weatherly didn't have the breakout season I'd predicted, but he still finished the season with 9.5 tackles for loss and helped set the edge that kept most runners from breaking free to the sideline (Tennessee game excluded). Landon Stokes and Nehemiah Mitchell held down the other OLB spot and were reliable players, though they didn't perform at the level of Bowden, Herring, or Weatherly this fall.
Defensive Backs: Very yes.
Torren McGaster was the headliner for this team's secondary (26 passes defensed or broken up in 2015), but every player in the backfield made huge improvements to bring Vandy's pass defense back up to the standard set from 2008 to 2013. Arnold Tarpley developed into a lights-out blitzing threat, notching five tackles for loss despite playing as the team's nickelback for most of the season. Tre Herndon battled his way to the starting role opposite McGaster and was a sturdy cover-corner despite earning extra targets against teams that were avoiding Vandy's veteran DB.
Oren Burks showed off solid growth in his second year as a full-time safety, leading the team with three interceptions. Andrew Williamson provided a steady presence as a hard-hitting strong safety, while Ryan White showed that he's capable of filling the senior's shoes next year. Like the team's defensive line, the combination of improved play and limited losses should make Vandy's backfield even stronger in 2016.
Special Teams: Absolutely not.
Tommy Openshaw performed reasonably well as a kicker (even though he didn't attempt a field goal in the team's final five games, he still made 12 of his 19 kicks), but his inconsistent punting handed SEC opponents prime field position throughout 2015. That's not just on Openshaw - this team's punt coverage helped turn booming kicks into defensive stands inside Vanderbilt territory with poor tackling and discipline. On the opposite side of things, Vandy's punt returners - namely Ryan White - had a penchant for calling fair catches on returnable kicks and running up to return punts as three or more defenders bore down on them. On a team whose special teams dedication is so great that they once had a punter declared MVP of a bowl game, this was simply unacceptable.
In all, that paints the picture of a team that made strides to put 2014 in their rearview. Vanderbilt pushed forward in 2015, but the season may ultimately be remembered as a stepping stone for this young team. If Mason and his staff can't make improvements next fall, with a talented cast of players returning to a four-win team, then it's time to panic. Until then, there's enough progress here to believe in a Commodore revival on the city's western border.