College baseball season is over. The calendar has flipped over to July. That means only one thing in the south; football season is upon us.
The unofficial start of the gridiron countdown isn't exactly a welcome sight in Nashville. Vanderbilt sputtered to a 3-9 start in 2014 thanks to a new head coach, new starting quarterback, new starting tailback, new starting wide receivers, and, well, you get it. The Commodores weren't competitive in Derek Mason's first year at the helm, and an unsettled quarterback situation has most preseason predictions pegging Vandy for another three win year.
The schedule will be tough, but things will be better in Nashville this fall. The Commodores will bring 18 starters back on offense and defense, including freshman sensation Ralph Webb and the roots of a defense that began to gel once Mason took over the reins as defensive coordinator late in the year. If Vanderbilt can jump start their offense under new play caller Andy Ludwig they could surprise SEC foes en route to their fourth bowl game in five seasons.
Today, we'll begin breaking down those returning starters and new additions on Natchez Trace. We'll start with the unit that scored 60 of the team's 206 points in 2014 - special teams. The Commodores will have to replace current Kansas City Chief Andrew East at long snapper, but the rest of the team's important specialists will return to Dudley Field this fall. Let's take a look at the guys Vandy will be turning to in the kicking game in 2015.
The Presumptive Starters
Kicker: Tommy Openshaw. Openshaw held off Hayden Lekacz to earn Carey Spear's old job as the team's starting placekicker last season. Openshaw was solid as a redshirt freshman and made eight of his 11 field goal attempts - but he struggled from long range. He made just two of his five kicks from 40 yards or deeper; he'll have to improve that mark to fill Spear's huge, returner-destroying shoes. Otherwise, Lekacz will get another shot at kicking for the Commodores.
Punter: Colby Cooke. Cooke boomed 14 kicks longer than 50 yards and averaged nearly 43 yards per punt as a sophomore. He gained confidence as the season wore on and developed into a solid special teams weapon for Vanderbilt. Will he follow in Brett Upson's shoes and earn a bowl MVP award? Good lord, I hope not.
Long Snapper: Davis Winkie. In the spirit of honesty, I haven't been keeping a trained eye on the team's long snappers this spring. I don't know for certain which of the team's four special teams centers will get the #1 spot this season, but Winkie seems the best equipped to fill Andrew East's cleats. He was the #4 long snapping recruit in the class of 2014 and that talent led Mason to redshirt the young Georgian while East spent his senior season delivering pinpoint snaps, building homes for underprivileged families, and dating Olympic gold medalists. I expect Winkie to do the same in his next four years as a Commodore.
Kick Returner: Darrius Sims. Sims is one of the team's two preseason All-SEC performers thanks to a breakout year in 2014. He tied an NCAA record when he returned two kickoffs for touchdowns against South Carolina and put the fear of God into SEC opponents who dared kick near him in the eight games afterward. Sims is the most explosive athlete on the Commodores' roster and he's a threat to score every time he touches the ball.
Dallas Rivers. Rivers, Vanderbilt's power back in 2014, earned kickoff duties towards the end of the season but failed to capitalize on the touches he got when teams kicked away from Sims. He averaged only 15.1 yards per return for the 'Dores, but that number stands to improve after his first year with the program. True freshman Donovan Sheffield and sophomores C.J. Duncan and Tre Herndon are also candidates to take a spot next to Sims on the last line of the Vanderbilt kickoff formation.
Punt Returner: Trey Ellis. Ellis was a great story for the Commodores in 2014. The walk-on had his redshirt burned immediately when he was pressed into special teams duty as a true freshman last season. He's a nimble-footed returner who changes directions well and showed off solid hands in limited action. He returned nine punts last season for 49 yards and he's slated to improve on those numbers as a sophomore. If he struggles, Sims will be waiting in the wings for more chances to score touchdowns in 2015.